Rama Burshtein, the director of Fill the Void—a new film about the complex world of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish women—only found religion herself two decades ago. Burshtein, now 45, was born into a secular Jewish family in New York; she’s now a practicing Orthodox in Tel Aviv.
Her own religious journey helped inform Fill the Void, which has been the subject of much critical acclaim and controversy about the role of women in Orthodox Jewish life.
During a recent interview in a plush suite in the Waldorf Astoria, Burshtein—her head wrapped in a hot-pink hair covering, in a fashionable twist on the custom for married Orthodox women—insisted that the film is neither a feminist critique nor a defense of the role of ultra-Orthodox women. Her film tells the story of Shira, an 18-year-old Hasidic girl in Tel Aviv, as she navigates her marriage options and struggles to satisfy both herself and her family after her older sister dies and her widower, Yochay, is floated as a potential husband.
Although the film—which debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year and will be released stateside on May 24—focuses on a young Orthodox girl and is the brainchild of an Orthodox woman, Burshtein says Fill the Void is simply a window into a world that few outsiders have seen before, and not a veiled advocacy for the Orthodox way of life.
“It’s a portrait, but an honest one,” Burshtein told The Daily Beast, “I’m showing you the real thing without criticism.”
Burshtein says that has invited plenty of debate from Israeli and American critics and audiences, who have criticized the film for portraying her own community either harshly or uncritically, almost simultaneously.
Burshtein says her portrayal of women in the film is informed by her own journey from a secular to a deeply religious life. “I grew up in a very liberal home,” she says, “so liberal it wasn’t even about feminism. But I chose Judaism and I started to realize that women don’t have to be in the center. Things like feminism vanish; it’s just not about that.”
She says calling marriages among the ultra-Orthodox “arranged” is reductive, and instead calls the match-ups “arranged options.”
“I have a 16-year-old son,” she says, “and in two years, it’ll be time for him to start thinking about marriage. He totally trusts me. He says, ‘You know me, bring them over, you know what I’m looking for.’”
Burshtein says she met her husband only seven times before they got married—but she fell in love with him during their very first meeting. “Imagine on your first date, you say ‘How do you want your living room furnished? Cozy? Modern?’ There’s no small talk to pass the time. It’s about what you like and how you see your future. It’s very powerful. It was so spiritual for me.”
Fill the Void never makes explicit whether Shira wants to marry Yochay, but instead shows her testing the limits of her own freedom—and constantly changing her mind. Burshtein says the film’s intentional ambiguity has left both American and Israeli audiences debating whether Shira ends up finding love on her own terms. “One person will say, ‘This is such a romantic love story,’ and another person will say, ‘This is such a sad film, there’s no love here,’” Burshtein says.
Hadas Yaron, the young Israeli actress who won the Best Actress Award at Venice for her portrayal of Shira, says young Orthodox women simply don’t have the cultural landmarks that their secular peers do when it comes to identifying their own desires. “I remember when I was 12 or 13, watching Bridget Jones’s Diary,” says Yaron, who grew up in a secular family. “I really remember thinking ‘He’s so in love with her!’ Shira actually has a lot of freedom and a very sensitive family, she just doesn’t understand what she’s going through.”
She says making Fill the Void changed her perspective on religion. “I met real [Orthodox] people, instead of just hearing stories about them,” she says.
Burshtein says that was precisely her intention. She says the cultural voice of her ultra-Orthodox community has been muted, “not because the mouth is taped,” she says, but because the Orthodox don’t often share their own stories with the secular world.
“I wanted to make a small film,” she says, “just to show that we’re humans.”