Shoot­ing Yid­dish fa­ther-and-son drama Me­nashe set its maker an un­usual chal­lenge

Empire (Australasia) - - Preview - WORDS PHIL DE SEMLYEN

BEST KNOWN AS the birth­place of Woody Allen and Lena Dun­ham’s Girls, Brook­lyn is now the set­ting for the year’s most un­likely for­eign-lan­guage film, too. Shot al­most en­tirely in Yid­dish and filmed in a quiet en­clave nes­tled within Amer­ica’s busiest me­trop­o­lis over the course of a year, Me­nashe was a bold place for di­rec­tor Joshua Z. We­in­stein to kick off his fea­ture film­mak­ing ca­reer — not least be­cause he didn’t even speak the lan­guage. “I speak very, very lit­tle,” the New Yorker ad­mits. “I grew up speak­ing He­brew, but if He­brew is like Ara­bic, then Yid­dish is Ger­man.” For­tu­nately, it was his words the cast were speak­ing. Set in the Ha­sidic Jewish New York en­clave of Bor­ough Park, Me­nashe be­gan life as 30 pages of loosely con­nected scenes in English. “By the end, it be­came a full-on reg­u­lar script,” ex­plains We­in­stein of his Mike Leigh-like ap­proach, “which [co-writ­ers Alex Lip­schultz and Musa Sy­eed] and I trans­lated into Yid­dish for the ac­tors.” Not only had most of his cast not acted in movies be­fore, many of them hadn’t even seen any. “[They] thought big emo­tion was what you should do in a movie,” he says. “[I worked] with them to be smaller and more min­i­mal­ist, be­cause their faces, their bod­ies, said so much.”

The film, picked up by Moon­light dis­trib­u­tor A24 at Sun­dance but in­el­i­gi­ble for a Best For­eign Lan­guage nod (the Academy’s con­tentious rules mean only films shot out­side the US are eli­gi­ble), is based loosely on the life of its star, lit­tle-known Ha­sidic comic Me­nashe Lustig. A big man with a big heart ham­pered by a knack for epic blun­der­ing, Me­nashe fights for cus­tody of his son (played on screen by Ruben Ni­borski) with his lo­cal Jewish el­ders, who be­lieve the boy would be bet­ter off with his un­cle’s fam­ily. The re­sult, like a lo-fi splic­ing of Kramer Vs. Kramer and Bi­cy­cle Thieves, isn’t strictly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, but it’s “100 per cent [Lustig’s] emo­tional truth”, notes the di­rec­tor. “He told me early on that his wife had died and he’d lost cus­tody of his son.”

If there was one slight down­side to work­ing with Me­nashe’s game but in­ex­pe­ri­enced cast, it was in their sur­pris­ingly metic­u­lous ap­proach to their di­a­logue. “It was this Tal­mu­dic

[sce­nario] on set, where the ac­tors would lit­er­ally de­bate the mer­its of each word,” laughs We­in­stein. “It was hys­ter­i­cal… well, it was mad­den­ing to wit­ness. I’d be, like, ‘Let’s get back to work!’”

Did he ever feel like A Se­ri­ous Man’s put-upon Jewish pro­fes­sor, Larry Gopnik, on set? He laughs. “Ev­ery day. Ev­ery. Day.”


Street has­sle: Me­nashe Lustig with on-screen off­spring Rieven (Ruben Ni­borski).

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