In Praise of Arranged Marriage: Interview With Filmmaker Rama Burshtein About Fill the Void

Maybe as compensation for the soggy weather, many must-see films are brightening screens this spring, among them features Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach and Before Midnight by Richard Linklater, and the docs Dirty Wars from Jeremy Scahill and We Steal Secrets:The Story of Wikileaks from Alex Gibney.

Joining them is Fill the Void by Rama Burshtein, a captivating, finely crafted domestic drama set in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Tel Aviv. A world, I should add, that is rarely glowingly portrayed in film. Armed with hosannas from the fest circuit -- including Best Actress award in Venice 2012 -- Void offers a courtship and marriage tale within this hermetic, tradition-bound society that's both relatable and moving. Lovers of Jane Austen, take note. And though you may initially resist the practices of the Hasidic setting, you may emerge from the film suspecting, as I did, that maybe they know something we don't know and arranged marriage has a helluva lot going for it.

Burshtein's first feature centers on 18-year-old Shira (the radiant Hadas Yaron), the youngest daughter of the family. On Purim her older sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child. A plan is hatched to match Yochay (Yiftach Klein), the late Esther's husband, to a widow from Belgium. But -- grandchild alert! -- when Shira's formidable mother (Irit Sheleg) learns that Yochay may leave the country with the infant, she proposes a union between the widower and Shira.

I recently sat down with Rama Burshtein, 46, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Raised by a liberal family in the U.S., she grew up in Israel where she embraced orthodox religion. She's heavy-set, covers her head with a turban-like affair, holds passionate convictions. We talked about marriage Hasidic style versus the free-wheeling West, life and values in her chosen community, and the ability of Fill the Void to move people of all persuasions.

You've said that the ultra-orthodox community has not entered the cultural mainstream, though it has a political voice.

They're not in the cultured world. In this community there's no empty time to fill. They've been educated like this from birth. Mothers are very creative about raising their 12 kids. They're super women, with 12 kids you don't have time off. And in the ultra-orthodox community there's the sense that we're here for a purpose. We have a goal, there's a lot to do, we don't stop for things on the side.

And the goal is?

Knowing yourself and getting closer to God. You have many ways to do that, there are 613 rules to get closer to God and to know yourself.

I should say "I" am "them." I became religious 20 years ago so I have both worlds alive in me.

How does your community regard you after stepping outside its routines?

I didn't step outside the routines. I didn't think about a mission, or taking something larger than me on my very narrow shoulders. I wanted to tell a story, the only thing I'm good at. And because I have a dual background, both secular and religious, I'm both "you" and "them" and able to make the bridge between two worlds.

To me the most alien aspect of this film is that parents have a role in picking a mate for their children. Here, no way do you want your parents involved in the selection of a marriage partner.

This is not about arranged marriage. Shira has to choose her spouse. Young people [in Burshtein's community] don't go to bars or a show or movie to meet their partner. The option has to be brought to them -- but it's you who decides.

So many times in my life I went out hoping to find a spouse and came home empty handed. I wished someone would bring me options. When Shira finds love it's complicated, not easy, not your Hollywood thing. Listen, when I joined the community it was very alien to me too at the start. I have a 16-year-old son. In two years he's going to be out there. And he trusts me completely, that the options that I bring would match him. I know my son and what's good for him. This is a relationship you build between parents and kids if you're lucky and work very hard on it. It's not about rebelling against my parents and wanting them to have nothing to do with my love life. That's something we work very hard to avoid.

In America there's an "ew factor" even to think of our parents or children as sexual beings.

I understand completely. But when you're ultra-orthodox it's not the same. The kids' sexuality rises up at a different age and very differently. They lack the usual images of romance, they're stranded on an island. Shira -- she's trying to understand what she's feeling. No one has told her anything about love.

Okay, she doesn't have any frame of reference. But isn't that impoverishing?

Is it limitation or restraining power? Doing it this way creates a more powerful love. I know exactly what it is to be "free." I discovered that the options felt like jail. This is not freedom, this is not choice -- I felt I was not able to make a commitment because I always thought there was something better, smarter, funnier, nicer looking. That for me was a cell. Choosing someone and going for it, saying, Let us take this journey together, this is love

What makes it so difficult for Shira to come together with Yochay?

What's hard for Shira is that she knows Yohay was married before. It's very delicate, everything's happening really fast. The sister dies. Shira is still a little girl. Marrying Yohay for the good of the family is okay for her. But loving and being attracted to him is a conflict, because it's betraying her sister. Her journey is understanding what she feels and then admitting to it.

She starts almost like a blank slate.

I met so many girls like that in researching the film. My projects is men and women and intimacy.

Love is terribly strong when it's totally new, not based on prior images.

Do marriages like this endure?

There's far less divorce in our society.

What's your own situation?

I've been married for 18 years. My husband is a psychologist and a mohel [performs circumcisions] and a student.

What's the reaction of Westerners to your film?

Very different from country to country. And we took it to over 20 countries. Even if viewers had a problem, they felt there was something very authentic about the film. They had an emotional experience. You may feel, "this is so alien I don't even want to like it" - but then you do. Because choices and love and pain are universal.

As for Americans, because of their Hollywood education it was harder for them to experience a range of emotions. It's either pain or excitement or sexiness or fear. About the last image [the couple finally alone together] some people say this is so erotic; or, Shira regrets the whole thing. True life is having all those emotions together. For me this is Judaism, being able to hold all kinds of emotions together.

Which filmmakers have influenced you?

In Europe the Dardenne brothers, the documentary style of laying out a drama. And in America Quentin Tarention. I loved Django.

You're kidding!

He's very strong, the master of selling hope and justice. You come from his films uplifted: the bad will lose, the good will win. You feel you want to be a better person.