“Sometimes,” Burshtein said. “But not always. It’s really about what drives you to make art. Is it about, come see me, just for the attention? Or is it trying to create something from a deep place?”
Most baal teshuva artists aren’t as religious as Burshtein. Burshtein and her bearded husband, Aharon, a ritual circumciser — or mohel — caused double takes when the couple appeared on the red carpet at last year’s Venice International Film Festival, where newcomer and secular actress Hadas Yaron won a best actress award for her portrayal of the conflicted Shira in “Fill the Void.”
“We certainly didn’t look like the typical red-carpet types,” Burshtein chuckled.
Today, she’s wearing a maroon coiled scarf over her hair and a dress that covers her knees, elbows and collarbone — as is commanded in Haredi modesty laws — along with girly flats with big bows.
“My voice for this film would not be a fighting voice, or a loud voice,” she says, patiently waiting for that late lunch. “I’m not a subversive looking for a revolution. I wanted to tell this family’s very difficult story.”
She first overheard the story her movie is based on at a hospital, where an Orthodox matchmaker was talking about a sister who was debating whether to marry her brother-in-law. The custom is not uncommon, but women do have the right to refuse.
In Burshtein’s hands, the choice doesn’t seem as monstrous as it sounds. She shows us a young woman who is grieving her sister and aching to do the right thing. There’s also a simmering sexual tension between the chaste Shira and her brother-in-law, Yochay, played with a smoldering intensity by Yiftach Klein. They seem to feel both relieved and guilty about this.
“Secular society has very limited familiarity with the everyday lives of the ultra-Orthodox,” said Moran Stern, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. “The behavior of Shira’s mother shows how, despite the strong belief in God and destiny, coping with loss of a loved one is extremely difficult to accept.”
Burshtein herself became religious more than 25 years ago.
“I was always this seeker — for a while I looked into Buddhism,” says Burshtein, who is finally eating a kosher lunch of salmon and broccoli.
“It’s a very hard job to be religious,” she says, between bites. “To decide to not numb everything with shopping and movies and books.”
Burshtein’s only other films are part of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox movie industry, moral films meant to celebrate Haredi values. There is no sex, violence or brooding brother-in-laws.
So, how does she explain her need to create a film for a general audience, one that her own 16-year-old son feels is inessential to his viewpoint?
She thinks for a moment, then confesses that after lunch she’s going to see “The Great Gatsby,” which sounds like a lot of sex and extravagance. Is that really kosher?
“For me, it’s just this passion I can’t stop,” she said. “It doesn’t make me less religious. It just makes me someone who has to watch and make movies.”
Fill the Void
Rated PG. At AMC Loews Shirlington 7, Cinema Arts Theatre, Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains mature themes and brief smoking. In Hebrew with subtitles. 90 minutes.