Rama Burshtein on Fill the Void
There are few more unlikely and inspiring filmmaking success stories than that of Rama Burshtein. The 46-year-old New York City-born, Israel-based writer/director of Fill the Void had previously made handful of films specifically aimed at Jewish Orthodox audiences, but had defined herself primarily as a mother and a wife. Now she has become the first Israeli Orthodox woman to direct a film intended for those outside the Orthodox community. After going through the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, Burshtein’s debut feature had a remarkable festival run last year, world premiering without much fanfare at the Jerusalem Film Festival but then going on to play at Venice (where it won two awards), Toronto, New York, London and Sundance. It has since won seven Ophir awards (Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars) and earlier this year was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.
Burshtein has expressed her love of Jane Austen novels, and Fill the Void very much plays like an Austen romance set within the Orthodox community. At the start of the film, unworldly 18-year-old heroine Shira (the radiant Hadas Yaron) is close of becoming engaged, through a matchmaker, to a suitor she’s never met. However, her very existence is profoundly shaken — and her prospective union called off — when her beloved sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies during childbirth. Shira’s family come to believe that she should marry her widower brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), however both her resistance to this idea and Yochay’s intention to marry a widow from Belgium make this marriage seem improbable. Strikingly photographed by d.p. Asaf Sudri in tight, soft-focus compositions, Fill the Void skillfully conveys the compact, intimate world of contemporary Orthodox Jews. The film is an engrossing, moving and highly fulfilling piece of old-fashioned storytelling: Burshtein’s script is beautifully observed and her characters vivid, while the conjuring act of bringing Shira and Yochay together is skilfully and organically orchestrated.
While Burshtein was in New York publicizing Fill the Void, Filmmaker sat down with her to discuss the journey she had taken with her film. Fill the Void is released tomorrow through Sony Pictures Classics.
Filmmaker: Before you made this, you made films strictly for Orthodox women. Is that correct?
Burshtein: In the [Orthodox] community, we have an industry — only women making [the films], only women watching [them]. We fund ourselves and we have to make sure the women buy a ticket. It grows very fast but it’s not artistic. It’s like television in the 40s. It’s very primitive language, very melodramatic: a lot of crying and laughter to make the whole thing work. So in terms of [it] expanding my cinematic vision, it didn’t happen. Then again, because we fund ourselves, and we do everything to spend less money to earn a little bit more, that made me write a script, direct it, shoot it, edit it and market it…. If I needed a pan or tilt, I’d lose concentration on directing. I had a whole language that said, “All you have is a character and a frame. How you dress her, a good script, good lines…this is all you have. Don’t use anything else, no cameras, and no dollies.” It’s entertainment. It has nothing to do with what you want to say, it’s what they want to hear. And it was great, but I left that even before I did this film. I had enough.
Filmmaker: And how many of those did you do?
Burshtein: I actually directed one big film, I wrote three little films. Then I made a lot [of] little, little films, films for a community or a school.
Filmmaker: And what happened with the big film you directed?
Burshtein: The film that I directed is very weird. It is almost impossible to watch. Perhaps somehow, someone did see something in it. I was not marketing this one, someone else did, and it was taken to a cinematheque. They saw something artistic about it, maybe because it was such a wild animal.
Filmmaker: Will there be more Orthodox women making films like Fill the Void? You’re the first, from what I understand.
Burshtein: I don’t know. I’m different, because I learned the craft before. I know the world. I had 20 wild years and grew up in a very liberal home. My parents said, “Rama, just express yourself. If you want to write, sing, dance, just express yourself.” So in the Orthodox world, which is like the Jewish world, [women] are not educated [in their] spare time. They live their life as if there is a bridge and there is a million dollars at the end of the bridge. And they are running to get it. They don’t have time to stop and watch a film. They’re very strong in the way they feel, and part of me agrees with it, and them.
I have both worlds together. I love cinema, it’s very strong for me. I understand the power of it; I feel the power of it. I don’t think someone raised in the community should do a film for the outside world. It’s our mission that we will bring the craft forth.
Filmmaker: Are you saying that the fact that you had twenty years in the world uniquely qualifies you as someone who is now in the Orthodox community to make a film for the outside world?
Burshtein: Usually anyone that makes a film in the community [gives] an outside look. They interpret the community in their own, sometimes weird, way. The fact that I know the language, and I can love the language—then I can say something from within. They don’t have the language.
Filmmaker: I read something in an interview that you gave where you talked about the conflict you felt while directing and being the center of attention, and about how that was at odds with a woman’s role.
Burshtein: It’s not me saying, “This is what a woman should do!” I want to do something else and put myself in that role. It took me 15 years to make this film, and for 15 years I didn’t want to speak. I had nothing to say. I was so fascinated with the world I joined. Everyone was so smart that I felt everything I said was really stupid. Everything was smart and written down. I had no need. I got married, I raised kids. I had no need to say [anything].
And I’m used to being the center of attention. It’s not hard for me. I live there. I’m cool there, I’m good. I make sure everyone loves me, and I’m smart. It’s not that, I’m good at that. It’s just…you ask yourself, “Why do you want to be the center? What makes you want that?” And if you’re gonna go deep enough into the source of it, then you find an answer and you see that being the center does not give you what you really want.
And then you say, “Don’t go to the center because it’s not giving you what you want.” It takes away from you. I’m on a spiritual road, a path; I don’t look at things a way of being good and being successful. It’s about what I want. What I do want is to be able to hold [emotion], and not have that mode of expression and be centered. At the end of the day if I have that expression and have that feeling of being centered and doing a good job, I say, “I just need quiet. I need to shut up. I spoke too much. I feel it in my soul. I wasn’t able to just hold the ability of being quiet.” And I miss that for a lot of years. There’s a lot of beauty in being quiet and a lot of beautiful things happen to you when you get into that power. It’s not about the role, it’s about the power.
Filmmaker: So were you conflicted about that?
Burshtein: Very. I still am as I am talking to you right now. All the time. This is how a person works. He gets addicted to that thing he doesn’t like.
Filmmaker: What were your expectations early on for this film, and how did they shift over the course of time?
Burshtein: See, that’s another thing that was beautiful – it was not so conscious. I didn’t think I would really do this film when I started. What happened, every step of the way, just happened. I think if I had seen the whole picture, I don’t know if I would’ve really gone for it or if it would’ve come out the way it did.
I had a story, I had a synopsis. It was three pages long. With that I went to a producer. The greatest producer and he is the fire of this film. His name is Assaf Amir. He’s a well known producer in Israel. And he liked those three pages. He said, “Okay, let’s go try to get money to write the script.” And we got money to write the script and I sat there and wrote the script. Then he said, “I’m going to start seeing if we could fund it.” And it was funded. This was how simple it was. It was funded and he said, “It’s time to start casting it, to start working.” And when it took me a year to cast this film, it took a long time. I never really thought I’d find [someone to play] Shira. And then I did. And I was already tired. And then we shot it. And then I edited it for a year and four months. Never thought I would get out of there because it is so complicated to edit this kind of film. And then we did. And I said, “Okay, what’s now?” And he said, “Oh, you won’t believe it, we were accepted to Venice, to their competition. A major competition!” I went, “Oh! Oh…” And he said, “We’re accepted to the New York Film Festival. And to Toronto. And to London…”
Then I went to Venice, which could’ve been the floppy flop flop, because the first film of competition was with all big names. We were sitting at the screening, I had the most awful screening of all screenings I ever had. I said, “This is a boring film, what are you trying to get across? I hope they don’t brutalize us…” It ends and we have a standing ovation of 10 minutes. They say, “Wonderful story…” It’s like, “Where in the hell did this come from?” [laughs]
See, the next film is a problem, because now you know what’s happening. But this one was really easy because I didn’t. I still don’t and it’s very surprising, but very addicting.
Filmmaker: So are you working on another project?
Burshtein: The second project is always a trial. Whichever you go. The first one has the passion and preparation of all the years you were trying. The second one does not have that and it is a real trap. I think that my biggest present right now is me being 46 and not 20. Coming into the world. It’s not about that at my age, almost a grandmother. I find it a secret, how things work in my eyes.
The first thing you feel is, “I want more. I like the Waldorf Astoria! Please give me more! I need more!” You start a dialogue and you say, “Okay, calm down little girl.” It’s not about that. You get into that dialogue and say, “Fill the Void is the only project I will ever do.” And it’s totally fine with me. Then I started writing.
And that project just works itself [out]. Just saying, “It’s okay that Fill the Void is the only project you’ll ever do.” Then passion starts writing and I think it’s a secret that should be shared.
Filmmaker: Also being a mother and a wife, can you talk about the challenges of doing all of this with everything else that was happening?
Burshtein: It is very, very, very complicated. Yet, I find the way to do it is very simple. This wise older lady said, “You can be in a home and your mind’s outside. And you can be outside, and your mind stays at home.” And it is a very, very, very big secret to know where the truth lies – is it the outside or inside? If you go truly into it and connect to the source, you can be at home and when you go out it has no effect on the people in home. I can tell you from experience, I was totally out and it really is bad for everyone around. When I come back home, I am a woman and I am a wife and I’m a mother. I’m not a successful woman coming back differently as if everyone is doing it for me; I’m coming home because I feel it’s my true meaning. As long as you have that balance, you can do it. When I come home, I look at my husband and say, “I’m the wife. Would you like a cup of coffee?” And I do it gladly with that thing that that is my true meaning. Let him feel that he’s the closest thing to God. That’s my job and I like to do it as perfect as doing films. I think this is it. So the problem starts when a woman wants to just run away from home. Then all the troubles begin. If she doesn’t, there’s no trouble. I’m living proof.
Filmmaker: So, how does your family feel about this. Did they always see it the same way, for instance when you told them you were making a film and would be away a lot?
Burshtein: I didn’t know, again, [that I’d be away a lot]. If I had though, I would’ve said, “I am going to make a film and It’ll be a flop and then I’ll be home again!” [laughs] This is how it works. My husband was totally totally holding my hand, taking me to do the film. I can be honest and say that, when I was shooting, I was totally out of the house in terms of the heart. I was totally where it didn’t work out nicely. I felt it. The energy was bad, for me.
After, the process of going out with the film, I’m totally in the house, in terms of the heart. I feel for them it is easier than it is for me [when I’m shooting]. It’s harder than what they go through.
Filmmaker: How was post production? Did you edit at home?
Burshtein: No. And, I was doing that for a long time. A year and three months. I was there all the time. There were times I needed to be with the materials alone, not because I was this control freak, but I just didn’t know what to do and needed time alone to understand. I had a great editor. She’s a documentary editor and I took her especially because of that. Then it was just, “Let go, let go, let go.” I feel like editing has power. It’s art. Real art.
Filmmaker: The film has a distinctive look which is much softer than a lot of films. How did you come up with that visual style?
Burshtein: The wisest thought I had was to [hire] a brilliant d.p. His name is Asaf Sudri and he’s really a genius. He understood my vision better than I understand myself. For me, it was about the location of the film being a heart and how does a heart look? I knew it had to be colorful and it has to be soft. And it has to be very closed and on a wide screen.
Filmmaker: Were you able to express it like that to him?
Burshtein: If I did, it was only a couple years after when I had all the answers. He understood it. This is a very low budget film. And most of the budget went on the clothes. I knew it was very important. Having a character and a frame. It has to have heart. I knew all that, but he knew how to [put that on the screen]. The whole lighting thing was his idea. The whole film was shot on a stand. Only in the bedroom does the camera go off the stand, this is his concept. I think my work was to understand that he knows to shoot better than I do, and to listen to him.
With the shallow focus, I was thinking that we don’t see the whole picture. We see fractions and the whole picture is a divine thing. As a human being we can’t understand the whole aspect of a picture. So sometimes, we see clearly something that is not the main focus of the drama. And in storytelling, it is not necessarily the big drama. He knew how to translate it into frames. And working with him and looking as we were shooting was like a celebration. Frame after frame, I was surprised and happy. He was the wisest thing in this film.