Fill The Void (Lemale et ha’halal)

Israel (2012) Dir. Rama Burshtein

In Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community devout 18 year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is scouting the man with whom an arrangement has been made for marriage. Her elder sister Esther (Renana Raz) is nine months pregnant when she suddenly collapses during a Purim celebration, dying during childbirth.

For the sake of the son Mordechay the family insist that Esther’s husband Yochay (Yiftach Klein) remarry with an offer made from a woman in Belgium. Not wanting to lose both Yochay or Mordechay, Hanna (Razia Israeli) approaches Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) about the possibility of Shira marrying Yochay instead.

Religion. It’s funny old thing that seem intent on making the most basic and straightforward things in life deliberately awkward and troublesome to suit its own ends. For a lot of us many religious practices are unknown to us, an occurrence behind closed doors with limited only access to the details, largely based on unflattering stereotypes and ill supported supposition.

It is therefore that we must tip our hat to Israeli orthodox Hasidic Jew Rama Burshtein for pulling back the curtain and allowing us to get a better look at what goes on in her world via her own version of a Jane Austen-esque romantic drama.

That might be the first big shock for many – that a film in which, on first inspection,  it seems the opinions and wants of the female are apparently secondary and of little concern to the male dominated order of the Hasidic community. In fact, Shira’s opinion is asked for on numerous occasions and is given the right to refuse, but the pressure is subliminally piled on while various other aspects of their culture – women walking a few paces behind the men, sitting in separate rooms at gatherings, etc – won’t sit well with those who have heard of women’s rights.

However the men are just as trapped by their faith, also subject to being arbitrarily betrothed as per the whim of their families. Interestingly, Yochay is initially resistant to marrying his late wife’s little sister but slowly comes round to the idea, although not everyone is pleased by it.

Surrounding Shira’s dilemma is a similar cause for concern for her friend Frieda (Hila Feldman) who seems destined to forever be the bridesmaid and never the bride. Despite reassurances from the female elders that it’s the men at fault, this rather plain looking redhead resorts to so underhanded tactics to worm her way into the picture with Yochay out, spurned by the jealousy of seeing all her friends hitched up, with her spot on the shelf becoming increasingly roomier by the day.

The question those of us outside of the Jewish community will be likely to be asking is “What about love?” It seems to exist in some form here but there appears to be a caveat that permission is needed first or it has to be cultivated within the relationships as approved of by the Rabbi.

We may never understand any of this but Burshtein is keen to present both sides of the argument while truly lifting the lid on the cultural rites and procedures of her faith, depicting what we can accept as a convincing look at how seriously this issue is dealt with. Marriage, we learn from this, is a primary concern of the Jewish faith and while many may balk at the no “sex before marriage” ideal, the actually sanctity of marriage is still respected and adhered to.

This is the central theme of this film and thus doesn’t lend itself to any humorous treatment or farcical interpretations; the idea that this is a life changing institution and that everyone needs to be doing it for the “right” reasons is given full attention and due reverence.

To put us firmly in Shira’s position, the camerawork is tight and intimate, sometimes feeling intrusive as we watch on while the men of the community all sing and chant over a bottle of wine during Purim and other celebrations. For Shira, this filming technique helps communicate to us the stifling restrictions that she is trapped within, both through the conventions of her faith and the thoughts in her head. Every room seems claustrophobic at one point or another, even if there is just one or two people in it, possibly as a subtle but telling comment of how Burshtein feels about her religion.

The film is littered with little asides that show us despite the Hasidic community’s isolation from many aspects of the modern world, they are not that different from us Westerners. They own mobile phones, drive cars and shop in the supermarket. This may seem humorous to us, seeing the men in their big hats and esoteric hairstyles pushing their trolleys around in the cheese isle.

The sight of their ceremonial hats, which resemble furry tyres, might also raise a snigger or two from some of you but that is their fashion. There is a moment or two of what I assume is deliberate slice of humour; The wise old Chief Rabbi is consulted to mediate the discussion between Shira and Yochay but in what is an amusing comic distraction, is interrupted by a distraught and lonely old lady who wants advice on what new oven to buy! Oy vey!

The cast won’t be instantly recognisable to most of us but they are all superbly committed to their roles and don’t hold back in making their characters as convincing as possible. It feels unfair to single one person out but obviously Hadas Yaron deserves that honour for her portrayal as the emotionally complex Shira, showing all sides of her personality as she struggles with trying to do what is right within the strict framework of her believes.

Fill The Void is not just a subtly engaging drama but a fascinating window into the world of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews that should be seen for this aspect alone, doubling the rewards this film offers to the open minded viewer.