Israeli filmmaker Efrat Shalom Danon takes us inside the fascinating world of ultra-Orthodox women filmmakers.
In this fascinating documentary, filmmaker Efrat Shalom Danon brings us inside the lives of two Haredi women—teacher Ruchama and wigmaker Tikva—both also mothers with aspirations of expressing themselves through filmmaking. While Ruchama yearns to tell intimate stories about the lives of women from behind the camera, Tikva dreams of acting in front of the lens. In addition to the hurdles all filmmakers face, these women must face the censorship of their rabbis, who hold a deep mistrust of film in general, as well as a broader suspicion of a woman’s desire to step outside rigid social norms. But the need to be strong and express themselves compels these women to keep fighting for their goal of completing a film and having it shown to their all-female audience.
Watch the trailer: www.go2films.com/New-Releases/The-Dreamers
As a secular Israeli, how did you get access into the world of the Haredi, and why were you interested in telling this particular story?
The Orthodox world is not a strange world for me. My elder sister became religious 17 years ago, and through her I got acquainted with the Orthodox women in cinema. I was fascinated with the idea of these women filmmakers, who’d never seen a movie in their lives and are not allowed to visit movie theatres. For me these women are pioneers, and that’s what drew me into the story—the power of creation through all the limitations. I was fascinated with the power of femininity in this closed world in which they live—the power to speak out in spite of all the boundaries.
But it was clear that it wouldn’t be easy to enter their world, especially with a camera. One of the main values for these women is to be modest and not to show themselves in public. So they were quite suspicious toward me as a secular director. It took quite a while until they could trust me. We shot the film over four years, and during that time they learned to know me and we connected as women.
How did you go about choosing the two main characters to follow? What interested you about them in particular?
After extensive research, I found Ruchama and Tikva, my two main characters, who were both Jewish mothers interested in filmmaking. Ruchama wanted to be a film writer and producer, alongside her job as a teacher and a religious woman. Tikva, a wig maker, was auditioning as an actress for the first time in a film. They both agreed to participate in my documentary, but with some reservations. First of all, it meant they each had to get approval from their rabbi; plus, they both had fears. But as artists, it was clearly important to them to express themselves and be heard. I should add that neither of them had ever seen a documentary and didn’t know what to expect when I asked them to participate in mine. I think they showed a lot of courage by allowing me to film them.
Plots that are considered subversive to Haredi beliefs are forbidden for filmmakers in the community—as is showing a man and woman together on screen. How do most women filmmakers you met in this community feel about the restrictions? Is it frustrating or just part of what they deal with?
In their movies, they can’t film men at all, or deal with certain issues, including divorce, relationships between men and women, and criticism over religion. In general, they can’t explore any kind of criticism against the world in which they live. In one of the scenes in the movie, we see Ruchama being told by an Orthodox director that she doesn’t have creative freedom. I really wanted to think that these women can express themselves without limitations, but unfortunately this is not possible. Although the fact that these women are making films is a breakthrough, they are still constricted by self-silencing and censorship. I think they feel frustrated that they can’t say everything they want, but they would never admit that out loud. In my point of view, there is a mechanism of self-convincing by these women, that everything is all right, and that they are happy with the things they can’t do. This is what allows them to continue living in the Orthodox world. So they just have to find creative ways to handle these boundaries.
The audience for Closed—the film that is being created in your documentary—is packed. Is this usually the case with films by and for these women? What do you think is the huge appeal?
Yes, normally a lot of women come to these films, and they are all ages—8 to 80. It’s their entertainment. Usually the screenings take place during the holidays so these women have more time to go see them.
Filmmakers must consult with their rabbis every step of the way for film approval. We watch in the film as Ruchama (the main filmmaker you follow) is told that her film is no longer considered acceptable by her rabbi because the daughter in the film is too rebellious to her mom. Is it common that filmmakers get this kind of push back?
I think that Ruchama’s story, and the fact that she is not allowed to go forward with her film, is uncommon. Most of the time, the women intentionally create “Kosher films,” and adapt themselves to the conventions.
I should say here that while there is no doubt that making films is a complex experience for every person, it is even harder for an Orthodox woman. In addition to needing a rabbi’s sign-off, these women have to raise their children (and, as you said, between five to eight children for every family), support their family while their husbands are learning “Torah,” and they must take care of all the household chores. As far as I can tell, there are not many Orthodox women filmmakers, but there are between six to eight movies released per year. There are more and more young girls and women that are discovering this world of cinema and then go on to create movies.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
Well, first of all, Haredi women can not be revealed to the camera, meaning that they can’t feel free while someone is shooting their life. It’s not accepteble in the Orthodox society that women are participating in such films. And, they can’t say everything they really feel, because they know it can harm them or their family, like everyone else. Although they agreed to participate in the film, they were afraid to sound critical of their community or to come across as provocative. In addition, there were many limitations in filming the movie. My camera could not be a “fly on the wall,” and it was hard to get free access to shoot in such a closed community. But most of all, I think it was very challenging to tell this story and bring to screen the drama of the characters. Their drama was hidden and underneath the surface, so we had to use means of cinematic expression like editing and photography to tell this story.
For more information about the film and where you can see it, visit www.go2films.com/New-Releases/The-Dreamers.
About the Author
Efrat Shalom grew up in a secular family in Or Yehuda (small peripheral town near Tel Aviv), and graduated from Camera Obscura – School of Art. She worked as a journalist and a television critic for several years, and The Dreamers is her debut film. The film premiered at the 2011 Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival; won best documentary at International Women’s Film Festival, Rehovot; and is currently screening in film festivals all over the world.