Rama Burshtein simply got tired of seeing film portraits of her ultra-Orthodox Israeli community in a negative light.
This is what the Israeli charedi filmmaker told me two weeks ago, when we chatted, just down the block from the theater where her film “The Wedding Plan” had screened the night before at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“I came out of pain,” she said. “I saw a film that spoke about my world, but it was so untrue. I can tolerate voices that are not mine, as long as there is another voice, which I thought was really lacking. So I felt that I studied all those years to actually practice that. I was 40 years old and not looking for a career.”
The American-born Burshtein had studied filmmaking at the prestigious Sam Spiegel Jerusalem Film School before she made her shift to a totally observant Jewish life. Once she was part of the ultra-Orthodox world, she married, had four children, taught filmmaking to young charedi women in a high school, and then decided to try her luck making movies for the growing number of charedi women who turn to cinema as an entertainment venue. Going to the movies has become a women-only event, and a growing number of trained charedi women filmmakers in Israel are making films exclusively for that community.
Then it was time for her to break out and make movies for a much larger audience.
Burshtein immediately caught the film world’s attention with “Fill the Void,” which won the Israeli Ophir Award as the best film of 2012 and went on to play at the New York Film Festival. It told the story of the sister of a woman who dies in childbirth; she is pressured by family and friends into marrying her brother-in-law, so the child will be raised within their community. Burshtein showed total command of cinema form in that first film, and she does so again with “The Wedding Plan.”
Charedi women are the heroes of Burshtein’s two films, and she celebrates them beautifully. Burshtein’s women are “restrained out of choice,” words carefully chosen by the writer/director. They are “totally committed to the halacha and not to the way people act.” Burshtein is not a filmmaker who holds back on her comfort level as a charedi woman, putting onto the film canvas the everyday life of her community. She has received the heksher of her rebbe, though she told me that her rebbetzen has shared some concerns about her filmmaking. The professional actors who play the lead roles in her films always seem to have a special glow and exude a love of life.
Noa Koler as Michal proves that an actor does not have to be charedi to play one. She shows unbelievable range as a 32-year-old woman who somehow has not yet been successful in finding her man, her bashert, her intended. Worse, as a hozeret bitsuvah (“returnee” to Judaism), she may not have made it to the top of the most wanted bride list. But no! Rather than go to Tinder or sawyouatsinai.com, she turns to what appears to be a Moroccan shawafa who lops all kinds of goo over her in an effort to ward off the evil spirits that must be thwarting her matrimonial efforts. It is scenes like this that lighten and brighten our special look into a world unknown to many of us.
Rama Burshtein does not shy away from struggling with the theme of desire in “The Wedding Plan.” Michal seeks love. She wants a man to be by her side. She clearly states in words and action her desire and belief that she can have what she wants. “The essence of everything is desire,” Burshtein told me. “The desire to find love, and the belief that it is possible to find that love.”
Michal does find that shiduch, that match that is finally put together for her. A wedding date is set for the last day of Chanukah and all looks good — until the khasn, her future groom, backs out. Now what? Other dates? New introductions? Prospective husbands of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities? But no future husband seems to be in the offing. Now what? Despite these developments, Michal opts to put down a deposit on a wedding hall, giving herself the eighth night of Chanukah as a deadline for finding her man.
And so begins her search for love and companionship, which includes a visit to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. Yes. Maybe the rebbe will look after her and see her through this journey!
Rama Burshtein gives us a film that is sure to delight and entertain you. She shows a mastery of filmmaking that makes this film just simply fun to watch. Alfred Hitchcock marveled at cinema’s ability to enter worlds beyond our scope as spectators and Rama introduces us to a charedi world generally closed off from our sight. Watch it and enjoy!
Eric Goldman is a lecturer, writer and teacher. He is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.