Film Review – Fill The Void
So, it turns out there is a whole industry of privately financed films in Israel created by and for ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. They tend to run about 2 ½ hours long and follow strict conventions regarding subject matter and behavior. I think it’s pretty cool, because everybody should have the chance to see his or her experiences reflected on the big screen. And the fact that ladies are making their own movies, sometimes specifically just for other women, is pretty awesome, too. I don’t think every movie is for everybody, and the more variety one gets in the mix, the better. Many of these women will never see a secular film, so why shouldn’t they have the kind of entertainment they want? Coming out of this tradition—but not a part of it—is Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void. Filmed for a general audience, but influenced by Orthodox films, it peers into the ultra-conservative world with an insider’s perspective.
18-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is just entering the marriage market when her sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth with her first child. Shira’s tentative marriage arrangement—with a young man she has never met—is put on the back burner while her family deals with their grief. She and her parents are looking after her new nephew, while her brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) mulls over his options. His mother would like him to marry again, and has proposed a prospective candidate in Belgium. Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) is distraught over the idea of losing her grandson and decides that Yochay should marry Shira instead. Yochay is older than Shira, and coupled with the somewhat segregated nature of their society, they don’t really know each other that well. Both are initially resistant to the idea, but eventually Yochay comes around. Shira must decide if it is more important to please others or to follow her own desires, and during that process, she discovers what she really wants.
I really enjoyed this film. It’s low on exposition, so I kind of felt like I got dropped off with an ultra-Orthodox family for a while, and had to learn the ropes by just watching what everyone else was doing. The target audience here is mainstream viewers, but this film is not a primer for ultra-Orthodox culture. Nobody has a conversation where they explain the traditions and motivations behind their actions. Things just happen, people are opaque, and we only learn what is going on inside when the characters open up and talk to each other about what is in their hearts. And—like in real life—sometimes it can take awhile for that to happen.
This is a small film that takes place mostly in Shira’s family’s apartment, and there are no bad people here. Everybody loves each other, and all their actions are motivated by that love. That doesn’t mean that they can’t hurt each other, because they do. But because they love each other so much, their hearts are open to maybe not getting everything they want. Shira wants to make everybody else happy, but she is valued by her family, and there are those around to help her understand that her happiness matters as well. This is a fairly patriarchal society, but it doesn’t mean the women do not have any autonomy or value. No one is going to force Shira to marry someone she has no interest in. (Although, great emphasis is placed on getting married. There is no smashing of the patriarchy here, which is okay. It turns out all kinds of lives can be fulfilling and worthy of making films about.)
What this film does best is show how Shira and Yochay get to know each other better within the constraints of their culture. It’s a slow dance, and as much as they are still strangers by the end of the film, Shira knows her brother-in-law much better than she would any other man she considers marrying. There is no kissing or other displays of affection in this movie, but there is one moment of intense awareness when the two are standing near each other during a confrontation. It made my heart pound a little, which doesn’t usually happen with more explicit films. Sometimes it can be a little hard to find sympathy with Shira because she keeps her cards very close to the chest, but, bit-by-bit, she opens herself up to those around her. As she learns to value her own desires, she becomes a more interesting character.
This is a lovely movie that I strongly recommend. There’s no new ground being broken here, or great philosophy being discussed, but it’s intriguing and I found it resonated emotionally with me. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but that should be a draw and not a deterrent. It’s nice to have a coming-of-age story with a female protagonist, and while marriage is the central focus of the movie, it’s also nice to see it contemplated in a mature and realistic way.
Final Grade: A