February 25, 2020

Director’s ‘Wedding Plan’ depicts hope and romance — ultra-Orthodox style

Rama Burshtein. Photo by Lea Golda Holterman

Rama Burshtein. Photo by Lea Golda Holterman

Reflecting on the years before she became religious, American-born Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein said, “I was very wild and very curious. I was wild then, and I am wild today.  But today I have rules that make me very healthy.”

It is Burshtein’s knowledge of both the secular and observant worlds that has propelled her to become perhaps the first female ultra-Orthodox writer-director to cross over successfully into the cinematic mainstream.

Her acclaimed 2012 drama, “Fill the Void,” spotlighting a teenager struggling with whether to marry her sister’s widower, won seven Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, including best film and best director. The movie premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where its star, Hadas Yaron, won for best actress.

Burshtein’s highly anticipated new film, “The Wedding Plan,” originally titled “Through the Wall,” is a comedy-drama about a religious woman who is desperate to get married. It screened at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals last year, and  its female star, Noa Koler, won a best actress Ophir.

On April 27, the Hebrew-language movie with English subtitles will have its Los Angeles premiere at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills as one of 27 features, documentaries and shorts at the 12th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which will run April 26 through May 3. The event, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, will include a Q-and-A with Burshtein.

The film festival is a program of TRIBE Media, the parent company of the Jewish Journal.

Other festival highlights will include the world premiere of Henry Jaglom’s “Train to Zakopane,” based on his play about his Jewish father’s involvement in the 1920s with a Polish nurse who turns out to be anti-Semitic; a restored print of Charlie Chaplin’s classic “The Great Dictator”; the Yiddish-language drama “Menashe,” about a Brooklyn widower fighting for the right to raise his young son; and “Restoring Tomorrow,” a documentary spotlighting the $150 million renovation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“The Wedding Plan” revolves around Michal (Koler), who had longed to get married since becoming observant in her 20s. Now in her early 30s, she finally has found a fiancé. But her hopes are dashed, just a month before their wedding, when he reveals that he does not love her. Even so, Michal refuses to cancel the date at her rented wedding hall, praying that God will provide her with an alternative groom in time.

“What we really lack in life and need to have more of is hope,” Burshtein, 50, said of her impetus for the film by telephone from Tel Aviv. “I wanted to widen the ability to feel that everything is possible, because it’s so necessary in this world.  People are depressed, in despair, and they cannot even envision a good outcome anymore.”

The observant male and female characters in the film never touch, per Jewish law, but that does not mean they do not experience love and sexual longings, Burshtein said.

The Orthodox community “is very sexual, and desire is so big in our lives,” she said. “But [Judaism knows] how to work with them within the restrictions.” In fact, Jewish laws separating men and women increase an individual’s private desire, she said.

Burshtein acknowledged that some viewers might criticize her films because they reflect a view that a woman remains incomplete without a husband. “I’m not even hiding that,” she said. “In the secular world, women are not complete without love. … But this is only my point of view.”

It wasn’t always. Born in New York City, Burshtein grew up in a secular Jewish home in Kfar Saba, the daughter of an Israeli father and an American-born mother.  Her father, a chief engineer in the shipping industry, often took his family with him on sea excursions.

Burshtein always had been a spiritual seeker, dabbling in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions. But Judaism meant little to her until, after graduating from the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem, she visited a film festival in Munich.

“The minute I got there, it was like a nightmare,” she recalled.  “I felt a bit paranoid and it was a weird experience of thinking that the fact I was Jewish might be a problem, as if I were in danger,” she said. “It wasn’t that the Germans gave me this feeling, but … I couldn’t wait to get back home. And from that point, something happened in my heart.”

Burshtein went on to join the Breslov sect of Chasidism, and some months later noticed the handsome man who would ultimately become her husband.

“He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” she said, and was eager when a matchmaker eventually got them together. “The butterflies [in my stomach] were the thing that made me decide to marry him. I think God works with everyone separately and personally, and I wouldn’t have been able to go under the chuppah without falling in love.”

They wed a month and a half later — 23 years ago — and Burshtein put aside filmmaking as she established a household and raised their four children, currently ages 15 to 20. She unabashedly refers to her husband, Aharon Burshtein, a therapist and mohel, as “my king.”

“I feel that if my partner is not a king, then I cannot be in love,” she said. “He’s got to be strong, he’s got to be successful, to have authority. To be in love, I have to look up. [In the secular world], it’s very mixed and very confusing, because the genders don’t have the distinctions of who they are and the true power of who they are. And to me, it’s very important that they do.”

Then, more than a decade ago, “I saw a film that portrayed the Orthodox world in a very … untrue and awful way, and that really hurt me,” Burshtein said, declining to name the movie.  “This kind of voice can exist, but if it’s the only voice, then it’s problematic. So I just knew it was time for me to go and make a film. I knew it was going to be about a man and a woman, which is what interested me when I was secular, as well as when I became religious.  This is what makes my heart beat — the enigma between a man and a woman.”

“Fill the Void” began when Burshtein chanced to meet a young woman who was about to marry her sister’s widower. “What fascinated me was: How do you make that kind of transition within a family,” she said.  “It’s easy to fall in love with your big sister’s husband, because he’s the first man inside your family who is from the outside. But how do you work that out with [memories of] your dead sister — that was something I couldn’t really understand.”

Burshtein interviewed 11 such women in order to comprehend the nuances of their decision. Yet she had trepidations about opening up, on film, “this thing between a man and a woman that is very private in Judaism.” And so she sought the guidance and the supervision of her rabbi, as well as her husband, while writing “Fill the Void.”

But dealing with both Orthodox and secular actors, as well as interacting with her male performers and crewmembers “was very hard,” she said of both her films.

“I have a problem with myself, which is that I’m very open … and then I sometimes lose my boundaries. I kind of mix myself too strongly and too personally with everyone. … The tension is crazy for me. I have a problem, not them. Of course, I never touch anyone. But when you’re open, you can feel the potential for trouble.”

Her solution was to keep a female assistant with her at all times “who could tell me if I crossed a line.” Burstein’s husband also was on set and has closely collaborated with her during every step of making both her movies.

Most people in her community have not seen her films — even her own two oldest sons declined. But then again, Burshtein said, she “only makes films for a secular audience.” She hopes to show those viewers a realistic view of the religious community from the inside out. And she is beyond pleased that her husband approves of the final products.

“He’s got to love them, to agree with them, because there’s no separation between him and me.”

“The Wedding Plan” will screen at 7:30 p.m. April 27 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and will have its theatrical release in Los Angeles starting May 12. For tickets and information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit lajfilmfest.org or call (800) 838-3006, or (213) 368-1661 for group sales.