A Tender Drama Performed Entirely in Yiddish
Cast: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski
Director: Joshua Z Weinstein
Running Time: 82 minutes
Synopsis: Performed entirely in Yiddish, a language not used in cinema for many decades, Menashe follows a kind, hapless grocery store clerk as he struggles to make ends meet and responsibly parent his young son, Rieven. In the wake of his wife's death, tradition prohibits Menashe from raising his son alone, so Rieven's strict uncle adopts him, leaving Menashe heartbroken. Meanwhile, though Menashe seems to bungle every challenge in his path, his rabbi grants him one special week with Rieven before his wife's memorial and a chance to prove himself a suitable man of faith and fatherhood.
Release Date: February 8th, 2018
Interview with Joshua Z Weinstein
Question: What was the initial inspiration in making this film?
Joshua Z Weinstein: I was drawn to this story as way of better understanding myself and my ancestors. I grew up as a liberal Jew in the suburbs of New York. My great grand parents came from the shtetls of Poland, landed in Brooklyn and from there the family pretty much stayed put. That said, I have always been fascinated by Hasidic Jews. I feel as though we share a kinship, yet it is one that is rooted in a certain lack of understanding that can easily be lost in translation. Hasidic life in Borough Park has many similarities to how my great grand parents lived outside Warsaw. The film allowed me to share in the humanity and warmth of the community and develop a better thread of understanding that ultimately goes in both directions.
Question: Tell us more about your relationship with Menashe Lusting. Did you write the film with him in mind?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Menashe is a great friend and an even better actor. I remember the first time driving up to meet him in New Square, a town 27 miles north of the GW bridge that is exclusively made up of Skver Hassids. It is also one of the poorest municipalities in the United States and is connected by a single road leading in and out. Entering a town completely populated by Hasidic Jews makes you feel transported back to the ghettos of Poland. On my first casting trip to this town, I remember having Menashe improv for us, and couldn't believe the ferociousness, humanity, vulnerability, and comedic timing he possessed. Many elements of his character in the film are also based on Menashe's own life. Menashe is actually a widowed grocer whose son lives a few blocks away in a foster home. Bringing his life experience to the forefront made his performance incredibly raw, allowing life to imitate art and vice versa. Menashe sometimes told me how confusing the entire experience was for him, yet ultimately he was incredibly happy to be able to express himself in an artistic way.
Question: Given the somewhat closed-off nature of the Hasidic community, did you have trouble populating the supporting cast?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Authenticity was our central priority in making the film. One of the ways we were able to get access to the community was through our producer Danny Finkelman who is a Hasidic Jew himself. He was not only a key gatekeeper but also served as part of a team of advisors who made sure that the all aspects of the film were honest and genuine representations of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Casting was a lot of fun, but it was certainly an atypical experience overall. This was not the kind of situation where we could simply call a casting agent or post information on the Internet and expect the type of actors we needed to show up.
99.9% of Hasidic men refused to be in the movie, and the .01 percent who could act were not easy to find. As such, it was very much like a game of telephone where my phone number was distributed within the Ultra Orthodox world, resulting in some of the strangest phone calls I have ever received. Eventually we were able to pull together an incredible group of performers and subtly tweaked the roles around their strengths and personalities.
Question: Were some of the actors hesitant to put so much of their own personal lives on screen?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Many of the actors took a huge risk being involved with in this film as most religious leaders in the community are firmly against outside media. Smartphones, Internet, and radio are banned in most Hasidic homes as well as modern music and books. Ultra-Orthodox individuals who go against the norms of their communities often receive harsh consequences. These individuals may be intimidated to leave their homes, fired from their jobs, and even lose custody of their children. Appearing in a film like this has put all of actors at risk and we have taken precautions to try to ensure their safety.
Question: The ultra-conservative Hasidic community has rarely been depicted in film. Why do you think this is an important addition to their depiction in larger entertainment landscape?
Joshua Z Weinstein: The community is usually depicted according to the views of outsiders and frequently appears cold and generally without joy. Yet the Hasidic culture that I have experienced is one that is funny, beautiful, and deeply spiritual. While I was researching the film I would walk the streets of Borough Park and have frank conversations with the people I encountered, many of whom were wonderful and exceedingly curious about the outside world. My goal with the film was to humanize these people to an audience of outsiders and share moments of their everyday lives that are rarely seen.
Question: What other influences did you draw on in writing and directing the film?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Even though this is a film set in the Ultra-Orthodox world, the bond between a parent and child is a theme that is universal. Some of my favorite films that examine that relationship and helped inspire the film include: The Bicycle Theif, Kramer Vs. Kramer, A Woman Under The Influence and The Kid With A Bike. I also love the depictions of New York in cinema, particularly those of William Friedkin, Morris Engel, Andrew Dosunmu, and John Cassavetes.
Question: What was the energy and environment like on set? Many of the actors in the film had never seen a film before at all, which presented an interesting set of challenges on set. As a result of that, I tried to help them forget that the camera was there in order to keep them focused on their performances. We often shot from a block away with 400mm lenses in order to keep the actors firmly planted within the real world. We also had a translator on set who would let us know if they were straying to far from the script. All in all, everything about this film was crafted around the performances themselves. My goal was not to have the actors worried about making their marks or remembering lines verbatim, yet rather to allow them to remain in the moment and deliver honest performances overall.
Question: How long was the shoot and where did you film? Authenticity was the guiding principle for the film. I wanted to shoot in Borough Park, on the streets, synagogues, restaurants, and apartments where the real Hasidim lives. Although capturing all these locations was extremely difficult, the film shines because you can literally smell and taste the legitimacy of the location.
We filmed a few times over a one-year period. There were two shoots that spanned two weeks each along with several one-off days. In fact, one of the biggest difficulties involved with shooting was making sure that everyone's beards remained the same length for continuity.
Release Date: February 8th, 2018