YU Observer Film Talk: Operation Candlelight

by Carmelle Danneman

The crew is setting up for the first exterior shot of the school building. The techno-crane is completely extended, and the gaffer is adjusting the lighting. The producer, Leah Gottfried, a senior at Stern, is making sure everything is going according to schedule. Orthodox cinematographer Daron Keet is framing the first shot. I’ve been waiting for the chance to use my G-d given talents without compromising my faith, and it is finally here.

This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity of starring in my first film, Operation Candlelight, with Orthodox Jewish filmmaker and director Robin Garbose. Torah Academy, an elite boarding school for Jewish girls situated in the affluent community of Hidden Hills, CA, provides the backdrop for this action adventure film for women and girls. Operation: Candlelight tells the story of how a band of misfits, seemingly the rejects of the school production, become unlikely heroes when an unexpected criminal encounter rocks their world.

I have struggled my whole life to find a professional, kosher outlet for acting. Robin Garbose has created such an outlet that allows me to act while being shomer Shabbos, dressing tzniusly, and eating kosher food on set. Robin started off in her early twenties directing theater productions in New York and later moved to Los Angeles to continue a career in film. While in Los Angeles, she directed the television show Head of the Class. Garbose then became a baal teshuva and directed the television show America’s Most Wanted. After her eight-year stint of directing America’s Most Wanted, she opened up Kol Neshama, a production company dedicated to providing Jewish girls and women the ability to express their artistic voice through film and stage productions.

Garbose had previously produced musicals (A Light for Greytowers and The Heart That Sings) but wanted to move into a new genre. After finding the ironic location of an all-boys’ yeshiva boarding school surrounded by gated celebrity and affluent communities, Garbose settled on the story. She explained “a story born out of irony is what makes a movie exciting. The unlikely have to be in an unlikely situation.” Because of her experience directing America’s Most Wanted, she was able to incorporate exciting and thrilling elements into the film.

Garbose has been directing for more than 30 years now, and each time a project comes along, she faces difficulties. Of course, there are the usual difficulties an average filmmaker faces, the largest of which is finances. Garbose said, “Once you have the experience, the knowledge, the craft, and the stories you want to sell, it’s only about the money.” She explained that she has several movies she would like to create, but the issue is funding. Garbose also encounters certain obstacles endemic to Orthodox Jewish filmmakers. “The biggest challenge is finding your hashgafic comfort zone and feeling you can grow spiritually, as well as not compromising your work.” Not wanting to deal with any controversy about dress, she therefore created characters who wore uniforms. Garbose explains that she wanted to address tznius while also staying away from the tendency to label people according to their dress.

The film will be premiering in L.A., N.Y., London, and Jerusalem. It won’t be shown in traditional theaters because it is restricted to women and girls; however, the directors and producers will be renting out various theaters to show screenings of the film. Different from her other films, Operation Candlelight “walks the edge of being a Hollywood film and an indie (independent) film at the same time,” Robin said. Robin adds that for “frum audiences, girls who may feel a little insecure about themselves can feel inspired and empowered by it.” Secular audiences will get a chance to view the intriguing world of a Jewish girls’ boarding school and see the significant values these girls are committed to. The action of this film will keep both audiences at the edge of their seats.

As for the future of female filmmakers and artists, Garbose believes the prospect is bright. According to Garbose, this is the time for women to explore their G-d-given talents and embrace their own uniqueness as Jewish women. Women need to take their ideas, create them, and make them happen. And on that note, Garbose already has another project slated for production later this year—The Spark—a script she co-wrote that was selected for the Sundance Institute Writers Lab.

You can see the trailer for Operation Candelight at www.kolneshama.org, which stars Stern’s Carmelle Danneman, Leah Gottfried, and graduate Rivka Siegel.