|A scene from ‘The Pin’|
How does a Canadian filmmaker with no familiarity with Yiddish come to write and direct the first contemporary Yiddish film in decades?
Naomi Jaye had no intention of making a Yiddish film, she told the Jewish Standard in a recent interview, but the story of two young people trapped in a Lithuanian barn during World War II inexorably led her there. Assuming at first that her characters would speak Lithuanian, she quickly realized that young Jews hiding from the Nazis would speak Yiddish to each other, even if they were able to speak Lithuanian.
Jaye’s film “The Pin” (Die Shpilke), scheduled to open at the Lincoln Plaza theaters on October 25, is a moody romantic drama that begins in a Toronto morgue. Jaye wrote the script after watching a lot of the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” “I became fascinated with the dead, in the way when someone dies their body remains,” she said. When the image of a man sitting in a room with a dead body came to her, she translated that image into the Jewish tradition of never leaving a dead body alone. “The shomer” – the watcher – “is there to keep the soul company,” Jaye said, according to a belief that the soul stays with the body until it is buried.
In “The Pin,” an elderly shomer suddenly realizes that the corpse on the table is the body of the young woman he fell in love with more than 50 years earlier. Using flashbacks, Jaye shows how the man and woman meet and slowly become more and more attracted to one another. The first draft of the script had two young people hiding in a barn, terrified of being discovered. “What would they be doing with [their] lives under such great threat? Ultimately, they are just teenagers,” Jaye said, explaining that she felt she had to capture the natural tendency of young people to search for love and comfort, even in the most extreme circumstances.
Once she had the script, Jaye had to find actors. Not surprisingly, “we didn’t find anyone who could speak Yiddish at that age,” so she decided to put out a casting call for foreign-language actors who were willing and able to learn a new language. The excellent lead actors in the film, Milda Gecaite and Grisha Pasternak, are Russian and Ukrainian. Neither spoke Yiddish, so Jaye had the script translated, then videotaped the translator reading a story in Yiddish and sent it to actors. The actors memorized their lines phonetically, and although they are saying dialogue they don’t really “understand,” they are completely convincing.
“Everything had a million steps,” Jaye said. “What I asked them to do was a Herculean task.”
Although the Yiddish sounds very natural, the experience of watching “The Pin” is much closer to watching any subtitled foreign-language art film than it is to immersing yourself in Yiddish or Jewish culture. Jaye’s camera establishes a languid, sensual rhythm, punctuated by moments of high tension, and the images do most of the storytelling.
Like most Canadians, Jaye speaks French and English. Her parents, who are of British and South African heritage, don’t speak Yiddish, but Jaye met many Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors once she began the project. Although the Toronto Jewish community didn’t offer much financial support, the Yiddish community was very helpful once the project got funded, she said. The film is being distributed by Main Street Distributors and has been shown at many Jewish film festivals.
A native Torontonian, Jaye originally studied theater design and worked as a costume designer. She made her first short film at 28, a fairly advanced age these days, she said, but she’s hooked now. “I’m very passionate about it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Jaye is working on a second feature film based on the novel by Martha Baillie, “The Incident Report,” as well as on a klezmer musical. We’ll have to wait and see if either will be in Yiddish.