Making an independent film on-location in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, and almost completely in Yiddish, is not the most obvious way to lure people into a theater. When director Joshua Z. Weinstein embarked on his quest to produce Menashe in this very way, his plan was greeted with considerable skepticism, including from his closest ally. “Even my mom told me it was a bad idea to make this movie,” he laughs. “Folks didn’t really believe that an all-Yiddish film with non-actors was going to be a good way to spend a Saturday night. They just couldn’t comprehend it.”
On the eve of its July 28 release (following an enthusiastically received premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival), it’s clear that Weinstein’s gamble has paid off. Menashe is one of the year’s most uniquely engaging films, an ethnographic deep-dive into a closed-off community that’s also a nuanced character study. That person is Menashe, a Borough Park widower who finds himself fighting to regain custody of his adolescent son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), who’s now living with his uncle Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) because Hasidic norms stipulate that a single man is unfit to raise a child by himself. It’s a heartfelt tale about a father’s love for his child (and vice versa), the sacrifices required by parenthood, and the difficulty of forging an individualistic path in a conformist environment—and one that’s based, in part, on the life of its star, Menashe Lustig.
As Weinstein says, “Aside from those two details [that Lustig is a widower, and was trying to regain guardianship of his kid] everything else is fictionalized. Because it wouldn’t be interesting, honestly, otherwise. People’s lives don’t make simple narratives. They don’t fit well in that box.” Nonetheless, he knew from the outset that Lustig’s plight was both specific enough to Hasidic life, and yet universal enough to resonate outside those confines, to serve as the basis for a drama. Moreover, he realized that Lustig himself was perfect for the lead role—especially since finding him was something of a coup. “It’s hard to cast in that world. Literally out of hundreds of thousands of Hasidic Jews in the Brooklyn-New York area (and maybe closer to a million), we only had about 60 people show up for auditions. So I did auditions early on, and basically, I just wanted to find a great actor. I knew if I had a great actor, I could make this movie.”
He did, via his producer, Daniel Finkelman. “He introduced me to Menashe, and I did casting tapes, filming him doing simple improv games, and I was just immediately drawn to him, because he had this clown persona, but at the same point, a deep hurt inside him. For me, I’m most excited by people who are damaged. As soon as I met him, I knew he could hold a film together.”
Despite the fact that he’d be plumbing his own experiences, Lustig was eager to take on the challenge of shouldering a secular-world feature. “Menashe was excited because I really pushed him as an artist,” says Weinstein. “He’s always just done these YouTube clips—they’re kind of Charlie Chaplin-esque—and he also does two plays a year that are held for thousands of people in his town where he does, again, huge broad comedies. I think it really excited him that he had a director that could mold him and guide him and give him creative advice.” Still, it was a daunting challenge for the amateur actor, given that (like his co-stars, all of whom were non-professionals) he had a decidedly limited base of knowledge about the movies—to put it mildly.
“We didn’t realize this, but Menashe had never been to a movie theater before he went to Sundance. Sundance was the first time he’d stepped into a movie theater,” recalls Weinstein. “And people in the film really didn’t know much about movies. Some actors would tell me the lighting was bad, or they’d ask me when they were going to get a close-up. They didn’t understand the process. Their idea for acting was big Borscht Belt-style humor. It took a long time for most actors to understand the minimalism that I was after. But at the same time, I think the acting is brilliant in the movie because they’re just themselves. Everyone I found, I would just change the role to fit their body type and natural faces.”
By fictionalizing Lustig’s ordeal, Weinstein contends that he was able to get at a greater truth than he might have with a documentary: “Menashe is more authentic in capturing a better idea of what it means to be a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn than any National Geographic film.” And one of the keys to its authenticity was making it in Yiddish, regardless of the fact that most of the crew didn’t speak the language. Weinstein admits he knew “very basic Hebrew. I started taking Yiddish, and it was so hard. I knew enough that I could get by. But we had translators on set at all times.”
Beginning with improvisation and then scripting things more overtly as he went along, Weinstein shot as much as possible in Borough Park, utilizing a peeping-tom style (indebted to his own prior documentary output) that makes one feel as if they’re clandestinely spying on a forbidden world. Full of compositions in which his camera watches Menashe and Rieven through busy sidewalk crowds or from the back seat of cars—a detachment that’s matched by intimate up-close-and-personal moments at private events and celebrations—Menashe’s non-fiction-esque aesthetics are vital to its observational power, even though the production itself was carried out in plain sight.
“It feels voyeuristic, and it takes a lot of work to make it seem so off-the-cuff. Every day I was working on it, I was like, we can’t have a Hollywood-style shot in this movie, because it will break the façade,” he states. That said, “We actually never hid; we were always in plain sight. I’m obsessed with the ‘70s, and I feel bad that this is an era that I’m so constantly reaching for, but it was really a brilliant era of cinema where people could make art films, and it was before CGI was a thing. So you look at A Woman Under the Influence or The French Connection or Scarecrow, and they used a lot of the exact same techniques that I’m using. It’s just like classic cinema. There’s something about using a 400mm lens and being across the street from somebody in New York City—we’ve all seen it in other films, but we’ve never seen it in this community. So I think it’s also something about this community that makes us assume that it was more on the sly than it was…We had big billboards up, and we told people that, by crossing in the frame, you’ll be in the shot.”
As one might imagine, most residents weren’t keen to participate in this outsider’s project, considering the limited advantages it would afford. “Most people did not want to be in the movie, and most people did not want us to film in their location. There’s just no benefit; it’s not like it affects their world. It’s not, ‘Oh please film in my café because I want people to see my café in the film.’ There’s no upside for it.” That doesn’t mean, however, that locals weren’t curious about all the cinematic commotion. “I’ve filmed a lot in Asia, and it reminded me of being in a small Indian village, where everyone would come out and watch because they were so shocked and interested to know what was going on. They didn’t want to be on-camera, but they wanted to watch”—a situation that culminated with with a man approaching Lustig on the street to ask a favor, all while they were in the middle of shooting a scene.
As Menashe wrestles with his desire to simultaneously be himself, and to adhere to the customs and expectations that will help him permanently reunite with his son, Menashe becomes both a compelling portrait of grief and struggle, and a novel coming-of-age tale. It’s also a cultural snapshot embellished with numerous sociological touches—get-togethers in claustrophobic religious spaces; meetings with the local Rabbi; the use of a washbowl for cleaning hands and face upon waking each morning—that ground its relatable story in a distinctive place and time. Many of those details are presented without explanation, so that they remain a tad mysterious—a tack that was deliberate. “We didn’t want to actively confuse audiences,” Weinstein remarks. “But we didn’t want to explain something at the expense of making it feel expository. There’s definitely a clear line there, about knowing when not to explain, and knowing when to further explain. It was definitely a point we debated and talked about a lot.”
Empathetic, complex and wholly engrossing, the resultant work is like no other that’ll arrive in 2017, and one that adheres to Weinstein’s guiding belief in cinema’s role as something that brings people together, and—in the best-case scenario—enlightens them as well. “Film is an art form that you have to share with other people. We were constantly editing it and showing it to people and seeing what felt right, what felt wrong. And just being smart enough to listen, and to change appropriately.”
“I think people want to watch cinema to learn. And for me, film is always about learning and education. I felt I was constantly learning about society and about humanity through making this film.”