Director Joshua Z. Weinstein discusses how he created an authentic portrait of Hasidic Jewish life in his narrative feature debut, Menashe.
In the last few years, there’s been a small explosion of films about Orthodox Jewish communities — especially about the lives of women. The Canadian film, Felix and Meira, told the story of a twentysomething Hasidic woman brushing up against the constrictive life she was born into. Although it starred several ex-Hasidic Jews, it was made by a French Canadian and didn’t feature any actors who were still living in the community. American-Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein, a practicing Orthodox Jew, has made her career with films about the joys and limitations of being a woman in her community: Fill the Void and this year’s The Wedding Plan.
Joshua Z. Weinstein’s first narrative film, Menashe, which was a surprise hit at Sundance this year, takes a different approach. The story is about a grieving Hasidic widower, Menashe (Menashe Lutzig), and his son (Ruben Niborski), told entirely from Menashe’s perspective: there are almost no women in the film. What’s particularly impressive is that Weinstein managed to cast non-actors who are still active in the Hasidic community, despite film being not just foreign to the culture but forbidden. The result is a film based loosely on the life of Lutzig, who stars, shot entirely on location in New York’s Hasidic community.
When the film screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, I talked to writer-director Joshua Z. Weinstein about the unique challenges of shooting on location in an insular community with non-actors and how this allowed him to develop an authentic story about Hasidic life.
Telling an authentic story about the Hasidic community
Seventh Row (7R): The film focuses on male relationships. What got you interested in that particular aspect of the story?
Joshua Z. Weinstein (JZW): It’s about male relationships in the absence of women. It’s a film about a woman who passed away, and then there’s very few women in the movie.'It’s a film about a woman who passed away, and then there’s very few women in the movie.'Click To Tweet
It’s obviously always easier to write about what you know. I had access and entrée into this world that is deeply male and deeply religious.
To tell an authentic story, this is actually the world he would exist in. He wouldn’t actually be involved with many women outside work, in his life, especially not in real social situations. It was really fascinating and infuriating place to spend time to create a story to be based in.
No one has ever done an actual authentic portrayal of that world. I always felt that it was made in a Hollywood manner or in a way that didn’t show warmth and empathy, which is real in that community.'No one has ever done an actual authentic portrayal of that world, which shows warmth and empathy.'Click To Tweet
I’m not going to deny issues that exist in the community. I think the film is just an honest portrayal of day-to-day life. To take a humanistic take, to show scenes that had never been done before, making it in Yiddish was the only way to do it honestly.
7R: What was your research process?
JZW: I put a white shirt on, a yarmulke, black pants, and went out and spent time in the community, and very slowly, almost like a game of telephone, would meet people.'I put a white shirt on, a yarmulke, black pants, and went out and spent time in the community.'Click To Tweet
I spent a year just hanging out and researching. It was more like writing a New Yorker article, in that sense. I spent lots of time with lots of different people, talking to a few sort of ambassadors from the community.
Besides my own research, I also had a bunch of advisors to counsel me throughout the way. We exhaustively wanted to make things authentic. Authenticity is in minute details. What are the details of when you wash before you wake up? When you say prayers, which passages do you say? When you talk to people, what arguments happen? What’s protocol for meeting the rabbi? What’s protocol for prayer service? I endlessly looked at details to make them correct. I wanted every scene to surprise you with a small detail that you learn something about society from.
Working with non-actors from the Hasidic community
7R: Why did you choose to use non-actors who were still active in the Hasidic community? What were the challenges associated with that?
JZW: I wanted to cast non-actors. I did it because it was impossible and had never been done. The whole film is like an apparition, something that barely has existed and will never exist again. It was almost impossible to do casting: of the hundreds of thousands of religious Jews in New York City, only a few dozen showed up for casting. The ones in the movie are literally the best of the few dozen who showed up.'The whole film is like an apparition, something that barely has existed and will never exist again.'Click To Tweet
Many of the people had never seen movies let alone been in a movie theatre. When we went to Sundance, it was the first time Menashe had ever been in a movie theatre before in his life. While we were making the film, and in the editing process, Menashe was watching it. He didn’t understand why people would want to watch this movie. He didn’t think that people really cared about his story.'When we went to Sundance, it was the first time Menashe had ever been in a movie theatre.'Click To Tweet
When he was in that audience, and he heard people laugh and cry and clap, it was probably one of the most important moments of his entire life. He felt, like we all do when we speak or we make art, that we just want to be heard, to be listened to, to be appreciated. For him, he’d never had an opportunity to be appreciated in this way.
All the actors made sacrifices to be involved in the movie. They did it because they wanted connection. They wanted to share a part of themselves that they really can’t do on an everyday basis in their own communities.
Letting the actors improvise and react to the moment
7R: How did you work with your non-actors on their performances?
JZW: The goal was always to set up a space where the actors could feel comfortable. I wanted them to be themselves. I would change the roles to fit them. Originally, I wanted a father-in-law for Menashe. We couldn’t find one. We cast Yoel Falkowitz as the brother-in-law character, instead. He felt very stern and regal.
I really didn’t want them to memorize their lines because I wanted them to be in the moment. I would set up the scenario for them, and I would let them rough it out. We would go through the scene in English. We would rehearse it and block it. Once they got it in English, we have someone in the back room live-translating what had been said. I didn’t want the actors to have to think about the words. I wanted them just to react to the moment. It was very important to me never to make them conscious about it.'Menashe was a brilliant actor. On the third take, he’d always get it right.'Click To Tweet
Menashe was a brilliant actor. On the third take, he’d always get it right. But other actors would take 12 or 18 takes, and we’d have to go line-by-line to get them through a scene. It could be maddening. It could be very difficult. But at the end of the day, just the vocal tics of the store boss, the faces, you’d never get this in a Hollywood movie. That’s what was so important to me to include to make this feel authentic.
In the rehearsal process, things would come up, words would come up, that I’d insert back in the movie. Lot of times during improv, we’d find something great, and we’d play on it longer. The last scene, where the brother-in-law says that the kugel was not fit for a king, I just told him to insult the kugel. I didn’t tell him how to describe it. He brought in the whole concept of making it a biblical argument why the kugel was wrong, not just a personal argument about it being wrong.
7R: How did you apply your experience with documentary filmmaking?
JZW: It’s definitely being okay with the unknown. Even though the film was scripted and blocked like a fiction film, I was very okay improvising on set. I was very okay with us coming up with new scenes when we had free time in the day.Even though the film was scripted and blocked like a fiction film, I was very okay improvising on set.Click To Tweet
It was more about emotion and character to me than it was about plot. The plot was just a mechanism to allow me to make a film about this community, to enter this world and observe it. I was more excited to make scenes about beggars on the street and to make scenes about people in bathing houses than I was to tell the story about a father and a son. I just wanted a deep dive into this world. That’s what excited me.'The plot was just a mechanism to allow me to make a film about this community, to enter this world.'Click To Tweet
Creating an authentic, realistic look for the film
7R: How did you develop the aesthetic for the film?
JZW: It was important to have long takes. The choreography and the ballet of that allowed you to really be there in the moment and not feel the artifice of the editing. There are a lot of edits in the movie, but there’s also many moments where there’s no edits for long periods of time. I wanted the whole sense of time and rhythm to make us feel like we’re actually there for these moments, that this wasn’t created for the camera.'I wanted to make us feel like we’re actually there for these moments.'Click To Tweet
We purposefully never tried to make the film look beautiful. We never wanted to make things feel too composed. It was always about trying to make it feel like we were observing, catching moments that we were lucky to be watching.
7R: How did you pick the locations for the shoot?
JZW: We bent over backwards to film in all these locations. No Hollywood film would do what we did. It didn’t make sense. But at the same point, I just wanted you to be in a real rabbi’s office. It took us forever to find a rabbi’s office.'We made our lives very hard just to ensure things feel authentic.'Click To Tweet
I wanted you to be in a real ritual bath. The very last day of shooting is when we found the ritual bath and we shot it. I wasn’t even able to scout. I’d just hear we could go there, and we went there that day. The door was locked, and then somehow, an actor from the movie was there and let us in.We’re so used to fabrication in movies. But this is all real. It smells real. It looks real. Click To Tweet
We made our lives very hard just to ensure things feel authentic. I think that’s why the film works so well. We’re so used to fabrication in movies. But this is all real. It smells real. It looks real. It looks ugly, and that’s what real life is.