Among the things I learned reading The New York Times: that there is a flourishing ultra-Orthodox cinema by and for women:
Films for and by Haredi women were relatively unknown outside this tightknit faction until the director Rama Burshtein unveiled her feature “Fill the Void” at the Venice Film Festival last month. The film, which earned the ingénue Hadas Yaron a best-actress honor there and later played the New York Film Festival, was praised by critics, who noted that Ms. Burshtein’s technical expertise belied her sparse résumé.
In fact, while “Fill the Void” was Ms. Burshtein’s first film for secular as well as religious viewers, she has spent nearly two decades making movies for the women of her sect — films featuring only actresses and without violence, sex and swearing. And she wasn’t alone: Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel have been making movies for some time now — about six a year — according to strict Haredi rules: Men and women may never be shown together on screen; plotlines considered subversive or counter to Haredi beliefs are forbidden; and when the credits roll, the audience must have a lesson or moral to take home. The rules also mean that audiences are strictly segregated by sex.
Male Haredi directors have long been making films (to be seen by men and boys only) with the help of a few production houses. Films by women, however, are still self-financed. They are shown at wedding halls during breaks from school and the holiday periods of Sukkot, Hanukkah and Passover. And though the Haredim shun aspects of modernity, the banquet-hall plastic seats are packed for the showings.
I’ve only seen one film by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish director, the excellent Ushpizin, but I had assumed that was a fluke. The director and star learned his trade in the secular world before becoming religious, and his co-star was his real-life wife who, though she had no acting training, turned out to be a natural. So, I thought, okay: if you already know how movies work because you learned on the “outside,” and if you can circumvent the rules about sex-segregation by casting your own wife (so she can appear in scenes with you even though you are a man), and if you’re lucky enough that she turns out to be great – then, yeah, you can make not only a good film but something with real emotional and visual power.
But the funny thing about creativity is that the harder you clamp down on it, the more fiercely it flourishes given the opportunity. And when a single seed falls on virgin soil, the organism can spread like kudzu. So: one woman with some training behind the camera, Rama Burshtein, becomes a ba’alat teshuvah, and lo, a couple of decades later there’s a whole new category of movies by and for the be-wigged.
Robert Frost said freedom is “moving easily in harness” and I certainly think that’s what freedom as an artist feels like. That is to say: freedom isn’t freedom from external constraint. Freedom is an internal matter, a liberation from one’s own self-sabotage and self-censorship, a ruthless pursuit of one’s own truth. But external constraints, whether economic privation or political censorship or simply restrictive formal rules, are often the spur to creativity rather than an obstacle thereto. That’s why artists so often seek out even extreme formal constraints, and why entire cultures can flourish creatively in splendid isolation.
That doesn’t mean isolation is indefinitely sustainable, or should be. Nor does it mean that the work these women are doing is great art – I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. But I’d be more inclined to bet on these women than not. And regardless, their mere existence is a useful reminder to those – like myself – most comfortable in cosmopolitan climates that a position at the “center” of global culture may as easily be a handicap to an artist as a help. And it’s also a useful reminder to those who would build and sustain those cultural walls that one of their unintended effects is to magnify the potency of any seed that blows over from the other side.