by Sarah Trappler Spielman
One afternoon this past winter, I waited at a café in Boro Park for Yuta Silverman, an ambitious young filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. Although I had watched four of her films in one week, I didn’t know what to expect. But when a beautiful red-haired woman entered with a beaming smile and an open, friendly face, I immediately recognized her as the star of Sheffield’s Manor, a film about a group of girls hiding in a Red-Cross house during the Holocaust that she wrote a few years ago in only three days and produced at almost no cost.
How, I wanted to know, did a religious girl from the Bais Yaakov yeshiva system become a filmmaker? “I woke up one day and told my family ‘I’m going to make a film,’ ” Silverman told me, matter-of-factly. Six years ago, without experience or expertise, she began making cold calls to people in the film industry she had heard of—both Orthodox and secular documentarians. She stumbled upon a small production company called Cicala Filmworks, and when Silverman met the director Stefan Schaefer she knew instantly she wanted to work with him. They hashed out some ideas and came up with a story based on her experience of befriending a Muslim colleague as a teacher at a Brooklyn school. The result was Arranged, a feature film with a frum lead character but intended for a secular audience, and that quickly became a hit on the Jewish film-festival circuit. Although Silverman wasn’t involved in the actual filmmaking aspects—that was left to Schaefer and his crew—she was an integral part of the creative team and through this discovered a love of filmmaking and a desire to create them for her own community.
But if Silverman’s path is unique, she is hardly alone these days. Indeed, Silverman and others like her are taking inspiration from Dina Pearlstein, considered the grande dame of frum filmmakers in Israel, who was one of the first ultra-Orthodox women to venture into this industry and also a rare example of someone who makes money from a small niche market. Pearlstein makes her films in both Hebrew and English versions and shows them all over the world, especially during the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot holidays when women-only screenings are popular. She and other religious female filmmakers are discovering what their audiences crave—suspenseful melodrama—and are working within the shifting confines of what religious authorities consider to be appropriate material to make movies for women who may have never seen a movie before.
For decades, movie watching for women in Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood was mostly limited to slideshows shown in community halls on holiday breaks in which narrators would speak over still images. The first frum woman to make a feature-length, religiously oriented film was Ronit Polin, who began her career as a playwright and theater director directing high-school musicals attended by over 5,000 women and girls at a time. Her first script, called Hate Not Thy Brother, was set in the Second Temple era and proved such a success that she spent the next 10 years writing and directing plays for Orthodox girls’ yeshiva schools, including Bais Yaakov High School and Yeshiva of Brooklyn, all while working as a teacher and school psychologist in the Bais Yaakov elementary school. Soon after her first play gained immediate popularity, Polin began renting out her scripts to organizations and schools. To date, she has written six original scripts and directed over a dozen plays.
According to Polin, an enthusiastic reddish-blonde woman in her thirties—who spoke to me over tea and cake in her sunlit kitchen overlooking the Q train in Boro Park—this all changed in the fall of 2006, when she wrote a script about a French Jewish girl living in a non-Jewish home during World War II, held captive by a Christian woman who soon marries a Nazi worker. She decided to do something different with it.
“I thought, why put a living room on a stage?” Polin said. “Why not just film in an actual living room?”
Polin jumped at the chance to work on close-up shots, at different locations, and with graduates of her high-school plays who no longer had creative opportunities to perform, because they were religious women. When the organization that had first sponsored the film dropped the project, Polin raised money herself without knowing whether an audience existed. Her target audience was the ultra-Orthodox female crowd who had no other form of entertainment besides girls’ high-school stage productions. The resulting movie, Ink, featured female actresses dressed as Nazi men and broke the conception that the medium of film, associated by many in the community with the secular evils of “Hollywood,” was not kosher.
“It was very revolutionary,” she said. “I couldn’t call it a film. We called it ‘drama on screen.’ In fact, the tagline for the film was ‘Ink Changes Everything!’ ”
Polin never got a rabbi’s approval to make a film, but it turned out her reputation as an estimable teacher known for her “kosher” plays was all she needed. Her premiere screenings at school auditoriums and synagogues in Boro Park, Lakewood, and Monsey for Ink were sold out, with an astounding 350 women in attendance for each showing. The film then began showing worldwide and still continues to do so. Polin won’t release it on DVD so she can control who sees it, and the proceeds go mostly to charity, she said.
“Ink broke the flood gates open,” Polin said. “Film became OK and others followed. Filmmakers now walk amongst us. You don’t have to sacrifice art for religion.”
In 2009, Polin made her second film, Diamonds in the Dust, with the help of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, an organization devoted to peace between Jews. It distributed the initial release of the film, which was shot partly in Israel, to 70 cities in one week for women-only screenings. The plot, which was based on her first play, was rather unusual—a historical fiction about a family struggling during the era of the Second Temple’s destruction. The message was that strife in the Jewish community causes tragedy. The film remains a popular way to teach Jewish history at Orthodox girls’ schools and at girls’ camps every summer during the “nine days” before Tisha B’av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple.
Polin’s fellow filmmakers also tend to approach filmmaking as a useful medium to convey a moral message. In February I saw Tobi Einhorn’s play And a Time for Peace, a three-hour production at Machon Bais Yaakov High School in Boro Park that drew hundreds of women. Like the other filmmakers, Einhorn had no formal training and began as a teacher at the school before directing plays there for the past 26 years. She told me she first decides on topics she feels are important and then creates stories for them. Silverman says that Einhorn is a “breakthrough artist, [the first] to make plays with real issues, such as going off the religious path or anorexia.”
Einhorn’s feature-length films—Blessing in Disguise, produced five years ago, and the more recent Almost a Family—are based on two of her previous plays and shot in New York. She directs and produces her films and plays with her colleague Chavi Klein. This year’s play, And a Time for Peace, focused on two long-lost cousins who meet on a chance trip to Israel and discover their mothers had not spoken for 17 years. The characters—played by high-school students—were funny, memorable, and real. They struggle to maintain peaceful relationships and emphasize the strong need to maintain peace within the Jewish community.
Einhorn, like all the frum filmmakers I spoke with, was faced with the question of whether to release these films on DVD or show them only at private screenings. Technically the Orthodox rules of modesty dictate that women can sing or dance only for other women. Acting, however, falls within a gray area. Einhorn, who feels strongly that men should not see her female actresses performing, has decided not to release her films on DVD but instead to show them at women-only screenings on intermediate holidays on Passover and Sukkot in Boro Park halls and in other “controlled environments in religious communities.” Silverman shows her films to live audiences but also sells them on DVD, with tags on the cover indicating that they are “for women and girls only.”
On the day I met with Silverman at the Boro Park café, Rachel Frankl, another filmmaker from the neighborhood, stopped by to say hello. Ironically, Frankl got her start sitting in on secular movie sets she happened upon in New York City while studying creative writing and psychology, and in Toronto while accompanying her husband on business trips. She would ask questions to directors, producers, and cinematographers on set who were often happy to mentor a budding frum filmmaker.
“It’s not easy,” Frankl said. “Obviously, the lack of financial backing or any form of grants or available investors are a huge hindrance. It requires a lot of determination, relying on generosity of spirit and time of others, not just finances. It’s a massive job and for the most part a one-woman show. My husband helped with finances, my kids and my friends were on location and helped with transport and encouragement. Above all, though, there’s a driving desire to succeed at doing this, to show that it can be done.”
But Frankl also touches on the fact that showing her film at screenings has so far turned out to be less than productive, financially—when she showed it last Hanukkah, it cost thousands to advertise, rent space, and equipment, and the marketers who arrange screenings can demand upwards of 60 percent of the incoming ticket sales. “It’s just not worth it,” she told me, before explaining that she had therefore decided to focus on DVD sales for her first film, Anonymous Benefactor, released last fall, about a young religious widow raising three daughters in Brooklyn who receives mysterious acts of kindness when she faces financial ruin. The film has sold well, Frankl says, and she receives requests for it from around the world, even as far as Antwerp, Belgium. She’s now about to release a second film, a dance piece, straight to DVD without any public screenings. It will be distributed by Mostly Music, the Brooklyn-based music distributor, whose division Aderet Music is one of the main distribution channels of women’s films and music worldwide.
Silverman says that one of her role models is Robin Garbose, an Orthodox director based in Los Angeles who works with Kol Neshama, her performing-arts conservatory for religious girls, with whom she produced two movie musicals. “Robin is like a fire,” she told me. “She knows how to work the camera, she follows the rules of film, she combines the secular feel of film [with religious scripts.]”
Prior to becoming Orthodox 20 years ago, Garbose directed theater and television in New York and Los Angeles: She works with a larger budget, professional adult cast, and a Hollywood crew. She has screened her women’s films A Light for Greytowers and The Heart That Sings to mainstream festivals including the Atlanta and Jerusalem Jewish Film Festivals, in addition to ultra-Orthodox crowds in the United States and Israel. Garbose says women’s films are “a profitable niche market and it’s growing.” When we met in November on one of her trips to New York, she described a memorable scene in Boro Park one intermediate holiday when she screened her film in a lineup of other showings.
“There were Hasidic women saying, ‘I’m going to see this film tonight and that film tomorrow night,’ ” Garbose told me. “They were saying, ‘I feel like I’m on Broadway!’ ”
Still, aside from Garbose, no one is taking films made for the frum community to the outside world. Most religious filmmakers are still struggling to be accepted even within their own communities. When I met Lara Gedzelman for breakfast on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush before Purim, the actress-turned-director and writer explained the flip side of frum filmmaking. Her first foray into film was collaborating with Silverman on The Chairlady, about a stay-at-home mom who organizes the competitive “Lady’s Auxiliary Tea.” Gedzelman, who lives in Passaic, N.J., had to cut a scene that showed a pregnant woman on bed rest because in certain Hasidic sects pregnancy is never discussed out of respect to women’s modesty.
“Either you make a widely popular film or there’s no room for a niche film in this niche market,” Gedzelman said. The women watching these films, according to Gedzelman, don’t watch secular movies—they are “a subset of a subset” in the Orthodox world. “It would be nice if we can make cinema relevant to us even if we see [secular films],” Gedzelman said. “Sometimes by catering to one group you automatically make it unpalatable to another group within the frum community.” These audiences tend to like unrealistic suspense, which doesn’t go over too well in the more modern communities, for example. “It’s difficult because different people have different sensitivities so it’s hard to make something everyone can enjoy,” Gedzelman explained. “Especially when the different guidelines are somewhat arbitrary.”
Which may be why Gedzelman, Silverman, and Garbose are all working on crossover films that aspire to greater freedom of expression and possibly higher-caliber art. As Silverman put it: “My dream is to make frum films good enough for the secular world.”