Fill the Void
Directed by Rama Burshtein
Eighteen-year-old Shira is the youngest daughter of the Mendelman family. She is about to be married off to a promising young man of the same age and background. It is a dream come true, and Shira feels prepared and excited. On Purim, her twenty-eight-year-old sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child, Mordechay. The pain and grief that overwhelm the family postpone Shira's promised match. Everything changes when a match is proposed to Yochay-Esther's late husband-to a widow from Belgium. Yochay feels it's too early, although he realizes that sooner or later he must seriously consider getting married again. When the girls' mother finds out that Yochay may marry the widow and move to Belgium with her only grandchild, she proposes a match between Shira and the widower. Shira will have to choose between her heart's wish and her family duty. She will find out that the void which she must choose exists only within her heart.
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★★★½ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Fill the Void is a subtle and nuanced exploration of responsibility and the place of women in an orthodox Jewish community. Written and directed by Rama Burshtein, an Hasidic Jew herself, it is a film that neither condemns nor condones the customs and traditions of the insular community as a young woman is forced to make a significant life decision.
Hadas Yaron stars as Shira, a young Hasidic Jewish woman who is beginning to meet potential suitors for marriage. When her older sister unexpectedly dies during childbirth the community attempts to marry her off to her widowed brother-in-law. Yet the decision remains in Shira’s hands as she wrestles with her desire to choose a husband with the responsibility she feels to her family and her sister’s newborn child.
From its synopsis, Fill the Void sounds like a drama designed to attack the Hasidic way of life and to reveal the way women in such communities are trapped by outdated traditions. Thankfully, although Burshtein does challenge this male-dominated world nothing is quite so clear cut. Instead it explores Shira’s difficult choices in a mature and even-handed way as well as revealing the difficulties her brother-in-law and would-be husband also faces after losing a wife he deeply loved.
Confined to claustrophobic rooms and constructed of static shots that imprison all the characters, Burshtein creates a world where nobody is able to escape. Marriage, particularly for the women, is everything in this world and defines each and every character whether it be Shira’s dilemma or the pitying glances a woman receives when her younger sister is married off before her. Even when the film’s main narrative begins to wane with Shira constantly flip-flopping between duty and love it remains engaging due to its richly detailed reconstruction of a world few of us have seen.
With sensitive and subtle performances - particularly from Yaron - Fill the Void is an accomplished and thoughtful drama that is well worth seeking out.
★★★★½ review by Cindy T on Letterboxd
I enjoy films that expose me to a culture or group of people whom I know little or nothing about. Fill the Void is such a film, revealing what life is like in the Orthodox Haredi Jewish community in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Fill the Void is a ground-breaking film because filmmaker/writer Rama Burshtein is the first (!) Orthodox Jewish woman to direct a film for worldwide release. Her background as an Orthodox Jew ensured a realistic portrayal of the Haredi, the most theologically conservative group within Orthodox Judaism. In an interview on the dvd of the film, Burshtein explains that, contrary to popular belief, Orthodox Jews are not opposed to being filmed or photographed. According to Burshtein, they simply want to control how they are portrayed to others. She was able to obtain the cooperation of the Haredi community in filming by promising that they would be portrayed favorably. (All of the actors in the film are not Haredi, but all of the extras in the film are Haredi.)
Fill the Void shows how family-centered Haredi life is. The story is about Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18-year-old girl who is pressured to marry her brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) after her sister dies in childbirth. Initially both Shira and Yochay oppose the idea of marriage; however, Yochay warms to the idea after time. Eventually, Shira succumbs to the pressure by her family and agrees to marry Yochay. When Shira is unable to give a satisfying answer to why she is willing to marry Yochay to the rabbi, he refuses to condone the marriage and the marriage plans are dismissed. Time and reflection allows Shira to make a choice of her own free will, and she returns to the rabbi with a proper answer to his question about marriage.
The film follows a documentary style of storytelling, similar to that used by the Dardenne Brothers in their family dramas. The film's themes of love, loss, and self-sacrifice related to family are universal. I responded deeply to the theme of self-sacrifice because once, for the sake of family, I made a choice that altered my life. Fill the Void is an emotional experience. It had me in tears at several points in the story.
Fill the Void goes a long way in demystifying Orthodox Jews. Where I live in New York City, Haredi Jews are fairly prevalent, particularly in Brooklyn. I confess that I have long viewed them as strange. Watching Fill the Void has positively affected my opinion about these people. I do not know everything about them, but I now understand their strong feelings about family, which I respect.
★★★★½ review by Melissa Tamminga on Letterboxd
(This review on my blog, with stills from the film: ajournaloffilm.blogspot.com/2013/07/review-fill-void-rama-burshtein-2012.html )
Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein sets her debut feature film in the close-knit and closed community of Orthodox Jews in Tel Aviv, though the community is so very tight, I wasn't sure for some time which country or city they were in. One gets the feeling they could be anywhere in the world, and for them, nothing would change; they are their own little world, passing through the modern world, interacting with it only when they must - to call an ambulance, for example - but otherwise not thinking of it at all as relative to themselves.
And I could not help but be, in some measure, attracted to such a community - even if the thought of living among such a group also terrifies me with its promise of claustrophobia. Personal concerns are not merely personal; they are communal. What concerns the individual concerns the larger community: the wealthy are expected to give freely and generously on Purim to those in need because, one gets the sense, that the wealth, though centered on one family for most of the year, really belongs to the whole community. And the rabbi - aware and concerned for everyone - will give attention not only marriages and deaths but to the elderly woman who feels helpless because she does not know which oven to buy. We - most of us, at least - are not used to such a picture of community; for us, individuality - the pursuit of our own life, liberty, and happiness - is paramount. Certainly, we have ties to spouses, partners, families, but we like to think we have power of individual choice over the circumstances, even of the familial relations perhaps, we find ourselves in. The film offers a picture of a group where the community is paramount, where a common theology, and common, unique language, and common religious practices make the community and community concerns more important than the individual - though - and here's where the story resides - the film follows the struggle of an individual within that community, how she must weigh her own desires and feelings - her individuality - in the balance of the communal.
And so, while film offers us a sense of the community, the film isn't concerned with an examination or critique of the whole group and its culture and practices; it's simply the context, albeit a vital context, for the particular story we are following, the story of girl, Shira, 18 years old and thus now at a marriageable age. As the film opens, we see her, with her mother and directed via phone by the matchmaker, shyly and eagerly looking around the market for the man who might potentially be her husband. Shira's face throughout the film is an utter joy to watch; she is silent often, but emotions so vibrantly and delicately animate her eyes, her mouth that one feels the narrative of feeling - confusion, desire, happiness, love, grief - beneath the surface. The others of her community - her father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, the rabbi, her aunt - are older, and we sense they have learned to control much of that facial display of personal emotion; they are more difficult to read - though nonetheless, often all the more, fascinating to study - and their inscrutability stands as an essential contrast to the youth and naivete of Shira. Her face as she sees this potential husband is beautiful, demurely muted but nonetheless alive, illuminated with shy curiousity, eagerness, trepidation, and joy, and when she later greets her sister, who has come to visit, that face lights up to its fullest and joyous speech pours out. With her sister, she might fully express her youthful eagerness and happiness at the thought of an upcoming marriage.
Grief, however, strikes her and her family, and she is placed in a position in which her youthfulness and naivete must, more quickly than she is ready, give way to adult decisions, adult expressions, adult emotions. There is no room in the situation for her to be merely blythely young and happy; instead of looking forward to marrying a young husband and growing older by degrees with him, she must grow older all at once, the weight of family cares for this particular community of people suddenly resting on her unready shoulders. The family - and the community as a whole - places certain hopes and expectations on her, often expectations that are conflicting. Her family loves her and wants her to be happy, and yet they have in mind the happiness of the entire community as well. Her mother and father say, "We don't want to push you, Shira," and they don't, not verbally, and yet Shira can well read their hopes for her - and as a daughter who loves her parents and her community, those suppressed familial hopes do push her.
Like an Austen novel - and this film has been to compared to Austen - the plot, set in a very small community and most often within that in the simple domestic sphere, centers around whom Shira will marry and how the community respond to her choice. It's a simple plot, then. The execution of the plot, however, is far from simple, and the emotional and situational complexity, as Shira tries to understand herself and her desires, as she tries to navigate among those she loves, as she tries to do the right thing, all the while being urged to act of her own volition and choice, drew me further and further into the lives of this group until for me, like them, the outside world was of very little concern to me; it barely existed.
Burshstein's film will, for me, without doubt be one of my favorite films of 2013, and in addition to the emotional and situational complexity, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful, lighting and framing the characters in such a way that I was not only immersed in the world but bowled over by sheer beauty. The cast, too, one and all, give performances that don't feel like performances - subtly nuanced and deft. Real.
And last, it is rare that we have the opportunity to see such a closed, religious community, one in which the camera presents them to us: we can simply absorb their traditions and practices without any outside commentary and judgment, even explanation. From a feminist perspective, I could possibly complain about the stifling expectations of a community where women's roles are purely domestic; I could protest that Shira and the other young women around her should not have to believe that marriage is the beginning of life; I could grumble at the fact that the men are the leaders and teachers of the community - speaking, singing, and ruling - while the women sit and observe, separate. But I cannot and will not do this. The community is what it is; we are presented with it in order to participate in its joys and sorrows - not to stand outside and judge - and such is the craft of the film, we do. Its heartbreaks and joys and hopes were mine.
★★★★ review by Adam G on Letterboxd
Eighteen-year-old Shira Mendelman, an Orthodox Hassid living in Tel Aviv, is looking forward to marrying a handsome, promising boy of her own age. But when her elder sister dies in childbirth and the father considers leaving Israel to re-marry, Shira’s mother proposes a union between her daughter and son-in-law to keep her only grandchild in the country. Shira must then make the terrible choice between her heart’s desire and her family duty…’
In the way that Peter Weir’ two-time Academy Award-winning ‘Witness’ (1985) gave us a unique insight into the life of the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Beyond the Hills’ (2012) took us inside the confines of an Orthodox monastery in rural Romania, Rama Burshtein’s ‘Fill the Void’ similarly draws us into a closed-off culture, largely little known to the outside world, this time within the strictly-Orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, for what proves an intense and affecting examination of culture, tradition and personal freedom, and a very special work indeed from the debut director. (Burshtein notably made history by becoming the first Orthodox Jewish woman to direct a film intended for wide distribution.)
Burshtein comments in the on-disc Q&A that she doesn’t feel the Orthodox Hassid community really has a cultural voice. She comments that you can hear them politically but not within the arts or in a creative sense; this being due to the fact that they are not educated in spare time, and therefore literally do not have the time to invest in such matters. Having now been a member of the Orthodox Jewish community for twenty years, since joining at the age of twenty-five, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School-educated Burshtein felt it was now time for the community to have a little voice from within; what a decision that proved.
Delicately composed with intelligence and control, the film provides an insightful and ultimately rewarding insight into a world that very few of us know much about. Though characterised by their rejection of modern secular culture, it is interesting to note that the Haredi community are not actually opposed to the prospect of being photographed by those outside their community, it is just that they are suspicious of their photographic appearance and the way in which they are represented (or mis-represented) in the media. However, when they are being filmed by someone who respects them, and indeed from someone from inside their community, as is the case here, that is very different indeed, and that is what renders ‘Fill the Void’ such an authentic and heartfelt piece of work.
Clearly influenced by her love of Jane Austen the parallels are pretty distinct throughout. Burshtein’s film similarly unfolds in a community clearly confined by a rigid set of rules and traditions and, like the works of Austen, places a central focus on the trials of life within that specific community. The balance of romance, emotion, humour and intelligence is beautifully achieved throughout, and though the sacred traditions of the Orthodox culture are so vividly conveyed, many of the themes explored, i.e. love, morality, grief, freedom, etc, are ultimately universal, and therefore prove relevant to all.
Fill the Void is, it has to be said, a rather languid and slow-burning work, however there is a meticulous and strangely enthralling quality to the construction of the film which never threatens to feel overly drawn out or tedious. One of the most effective qualities of the narrative is that it rests on a set of questions which are subtly suggested or proposed to the viewer, and as the piece unfolds we constantly weigh up the pros and cons of each of these specific questions, again immersing ourselves within this foreign world (which could quite easily come across as feeling slightly too alienating) and almost feeling a part of it.
Nominated for a total of thirteen awards at the Israeli Academy of Film and Television Awards (Ophir Awards), Fill the Void deservedly picked up seven wins, including: Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress, for Hadas Yaron, who also picked up the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 69th Venice International Film Festival for her pitch perfect performance in the central role of Shira.
Beautifully shot by director of photography, Asaf Sudry, each exquisitely framed and superbly lit image is bestowed with a creamy, ethereal texture which again elevates the aesthetic quality of the film to a top tier, and the mostly close-up cinematography captures a vast array of endearing images of intense emotion and poignant reflection throughout.
The contemporary rhythms of the film are further enhanced courtesy of Yitzhak Azulay’s accompanying score, effectively blending traditional and melodic pieces with chanted prayers and contemporary Orthodox pop music.
★★★★ review by Joel on Letterboxd
As a fairly secular Jew myself, I've always had a fascination with the ultra-orthodox Jews depicted in this film, as very little is known about how they actually live and go about their lives. Many myths and misinformation are spread about them, and this film, made by Rama Burshtein, a member of this secluded community, has shone a light into what these people might actually be like, and we are able to draw our own conclusions about their cycles of births, deaths and marriages.
I highly recommend it, for its tender treatment of its subject matter and confrontation of stereotypes.
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