I had the exciting opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time last week. While in Park City, Utah, I saw twenty-four films and attended a number of Q & As with filmmakers and cast members. One of my most memorable screening experiences was the film Fill the Void and my conversation the next day with director Rama Burshtein. The winner of the Ophir Award for Best Picture and Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year, Fill the Void didn’t make the shortlist of nine films which were then narrowed down to five nominees. This powerful movie is, however, making quite a splash at film festivals around the world, in Jerusalem, Venice, Toronto, New York, and now Park City, and audiences throughout the country will have the opportunity to see it when it is released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics.
Fill the Void is set in the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world in Tel Aviv. Its protagonist is eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), whose family matchmaker has found her the perfect suitor whom she will soon marry. Everything changes when Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz), dies during childbirth, leaving her husband Yohai (Yiftach Klein) with a newborn child and no mother to take care of him. Devastated, Yohai cannot think of getting married again, but he soon finds himself with an offer of marriage from an old acquaintance in Belgium. Shira’s mother suggests that she could marry Yohai and continue the bond between their families, prompting her both Shira and Yohai to weigh the decision carefully.
This emotional premise sets in motion a deeply compelling story of love and community. What is especially refreshing is its faithful, uncensored portrayal of the Hasidic world. Most other films about observant Judaism, from The Jazz Singer to Holy Rollers, depict a struggle with adherence to faith and to Jewish values. Fill the Void is a magnificent look at life within a Hasidic sect, where, despite tragedy, both Shira and Yohai never let their faith waver. Additionally, while Shira’s mother pushes for the union, her father explicitly tells her that she does not need to accept it, and if she does not want it, they can stop discussing it immediately, dispelling any sense of her being forced into the marriage.
There is an honesty to Fill the Void that is remarkable, showing devout people whose conflicts are not with their religion but rather guided by them. One standout scene from the film features Shira and Yohai speaking outside Shira’s home. When Yohai approaches Shira, she tells him, “You’re too close,” acknowledging the prohibition between unmarried members of the opposite sex having physical contact that exists in Orthodox Judaism. Yohai backs away, but not before replying, “It could have been closer.” This is a film that addresses friendship and romance, all within the confines of an observant world. It is thought-provoking and meditative without suggesting that a break with tradition is necessary to resolve an impossible situation.
When I discussed the film with Burshtein, she said that she wanted to a make a film that is from the inside, not to do with the outside world. She herself is Orthodox, and previously made films for women only. She is overwhelmed by how the film has been received in Israel, and looks forward to experiencing more reactions from American audiences. Describing the Q & A from the film’s Sundance premiere, Burshtein noted that there were people who knew nothing about observant Judaism, but that there is something magical about the love story that can easily be applicable to other cultures.
Fill the Void deserved a place alongside Amour, fellow Sundance entry No, and the other Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees this year. Instead, Burshtein and the superb actors and crew members involved with the film will have to be content with the fact that their remarkable film is playing to increasingly larger audiences, and anyone who has not yet seen it should anticipate its release and make time for a creative, satisfying, moving film about faith.
Enjoy a few of my other top Jewish moments at Sundance as well!