Say, when did you first learn about sex? How about profanity? What about the very existence of women on this planet? What tipped you off to them?
Well, if you grew up watching feature films produced for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, then you wouldn’t find any of those subjects addressed on-screen — because none of them make the final cut.
And who’s holding the scissors? That would be filmmakers like Yehuda Grovais and Shalom Eisenbach — who are the subjects of two fascinating documentaries playing on The Jewish Channel.
Personal computers have entered ultra-Orthodox — or, as they’re called by those in the know, “Haredi” — households, and that means a loophole in prohibitions on cinema and television — creating an ever-expanding demand for feature content. But the industry producing those films has courted controversy both inside and outside the Haredi community.
In Kosher Gefilte-Film we meet Eisenbach. He’s a former-star Yeshiva student from Me’a She’arim, Jerusalem, who leads a secular lifestyle as a filmmaker. Yet, despite all appearances, Eisenbach produces a monthly Orthodox news magazine in which all shots of women are meticulously removed — something that doesn’t sit well with fellow filmmaker Avital Davidson.
“This is crazy,” Davidson fumes. “The best shots have girls. Look, this girl, a religious girl that gives birth to religious kids, that lives with a religious man, makes love to a religious man and suddenly she isn’t good for a film!”
Eisenbach replies, “It doesn’t make any difference if she is religious or not — the Orthodox community does not want to see women.”
Meanwhile, in Film Fanatic, we watch Grovais put the brakes on a complicated street-action scene, because he thinks a woman has wandered into the frame — which would render the scene unusable. The reasoning sends one secular actor into a rage.
“Your rabbis jammed your minds thousands of years ago!” he tells the producers.
Actually, we learn that Grovais no longer seeks “kosher” approval from rabbis — part of an effort to broaden the scope and style of his films. Yet, his moratorium on women persists, leading to a heated exchange between two of his female production assistants. Defending the ban, one tries to convince the other of its artistic merits.
“We don’t want [ultra-Orthodox cinema] to deteriorate and look like secular cinema.”
“What does secular cinema look like?” the other responds.
“Why? Women look bad?”
“Because they’re sex objects?”
Despite that sentiment, there have indeed been cases of ultra-Orthodox tradition and secular cinema coming together in a respectful manner. The 2004 film Ushpizin depicted a Haredi couple whose relationship is tested during Succoth. Filmed in Me’a She’arim, it starred Shuli Rand alongside his real-life wife, Mechal Batsheva Rand, who received significant screen time — a fact that meant Ushpizin would probably go unseen by most Haredim, even if it were available on CD.
This clash between religious prohibition and secular media provides an ironic business opportunity for Grovais’s film producer, Avi Greenberg. He notes how in Bnei Brak many Haredim record their marriages on video, but aren’t allowed to own VCRs to watch the final tape. So, he started a tape-to-CD conversion service under the marketing slogan “when was the last time you saw your wedding video?”
Elsewhere, Eisenbach cleverly exploits the no-women policy in his comedic film A Week Without Mother, in which a Hasidic father is left to look after his four children while his wife (who is never seen) takes a vacation.
Still, despite all attempts to be sensitive, neither director can fully escape criticism from the more conservative elements of their community. Eisenbach recalls how a group of men blocked the doors of a Yiddish play he and his brother produced, while Grovais shows off a collection of posters depicting him as both a snake and a corruptor of children.
Yet, in the midst of all this, Haredi cinema has actually expanded in a new direction: films for women, directed by women. A July 2007 Ha’aretz article noted that a few Haredi women were diving into feature filmmaking, filling a vacuum in female-oriented content. Most have grown-up living traditional Haredi lifestyles, and Grovais commented on the unique challenges they face — such as coordinating personal expenses with those required for a proper film shoot.
“A woman making her first movie must finance production from her household budget,” he said, “instead of a new kitchen or enlarging a room.”
But all of this might be changing, and in a more progressive direction. In the final shot of Film Fanatic, we see Grovais directing a scene with actresses, testament to his evolving beliefs. Going forward, other Haredi directors will have to consider a question put to Grovais by one of his female production assistants.
“Aren’t films supposed to reflect society?”
It’s a question these filmmakers must answer. Otherwise, they will go on reflecting a mixed message.