The se­cret pas­sions of frumy­oung­women

Avi Nesher’s hit film The Se­crets ex­plores the many forms of love ex­pe­ri­enced by fe­male Tal­mud stu­dents. As it ar­rives in Bri­tain, he talks to Nick John­stone

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment 31 -

VI NESHER’S lat­est film, The Se­crets, opens with Naomi (played by re­mark­able new­comer Ania Buk­stein), the young pi­ous daugh­ter of a re­spected Or­tho­dox rabbi, ask­ing her fa­ther if her ar­ranged mar­riage can be post­poned so she can study for a year at a Midrasha in Safed. Her mother has just died. Out of love, he gives his con­sent.

Set­tled in the Midrashah, she is drawn to Michelle (Michal Sh­tam­ler), a fiery young woman newly ar­rived from France. The pair are as­signed to help a ter­mi­nally ill older French woman, Anouk (played by French star Fanny Ar­dant), whose con­fes­sions of a tragic ro­man­tic past in­tro­duce them to a realm of pas­sion they have never heard of be­fore. To help pre­pare her for death, they se­cretly study Kab­balah.

In tan­dem with such mys­ti­cal en­deav­ours, Naomi and Michelle de­velop a pas­sion­ate bond, spark­ing tur­moil. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing film, os­ten­si­bly a love story about a fa­ther’s love for God and his daugh­ter, a daugh­ter’s love for God and her fa­ther, the love be­tween women con­gre­gated in cel­e­bra­tion of a re­li­gious life, and, more con­tro­ver­sially, the love be­tween two women.

“Moviesare­madeei­ther­top­ure­lyen­ter­tain­ore­voke thought and get a dis­cus­sion go­ing,” says Nesher, 56, speak­ing from his home in Tel Aviv. “And this movie is of the sec­ond kind. It means to start an ar­gu­ment.”

It’s not a film that sets out to cri­tique and re­veal Or­tho­dox Jewish life with the fer­vour of Amos Gi­tai’s Ka­dosh, Sandi Sim­cha DuBowski’s Trem­bling Be­fore God, Anat Zuria’s Pu­rity or David Vo­lach’s My Fa­ther, My Lord. In­stead, it raises ques­tions while re­spect­fully de­pict­ing re­li­gious life, an ap­proach that paid off well when it opened, without con­tro­versy, at cin­e­mas in Is­rael in June 2007. It went on to be­come a ma­jor suc­cess.

“Strangely enough,” says Nesher, who, along with his wife and two chil­dren, leads a sec­u­lar life, “there was no fierce crit­i­cism of the movie here in Is­rael. Per­haps that’s be­cause the movie does not say that our sec­u­lar way of life is bet­ter than the Or­tho­dox way of life. There have been movies be­fore that have bla­tantly crit­i­cal like Ka­dosh, which I find al­most ob­scene. With the high di­vorce rate within sec­u­lar life, I’m not sure our life is that much bet­ter. There’s a lot to be said for the Or­tho­dox fam­ily, its struc­ture, the bond be­tween chil­dren and par­ents.”

The idea for The Se­crets first came to him back in 2003 when mak­ing Ori­en­tal, a doc­u­men­tary about the failed Camp David peace talks.

“I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated by how Or­tho­doxy seems to set the tone on both sides of the fence,” says Nesher. “We’re fa­mil­iar with Mus­lim Or­tho­doxy as seen with Ha­mas and Hizbol­lah, and ob­vi­ously in Jewish Or­tho­doxy, women are way be­hind mod­ern women. Peo­ple tend to think that the bat­tle in the Mid­dle East is over land or wa­ter, but I think it’s over so­cial struc­ture, that the last bat­tle is re­ally over women’s rights. Be­cause if that changes, then the whole pol­i­tics of the re­gion will change dra­mat­i­cally, away from the tra­di­tional fam­ily struc­ture, where the fa­ther, the male, dic­tates ev­ery­thing.”

The idea went on hold while he made his 2004 box­of­fice smash, Turn Left At The End Of World, an “ode” to his fa­ther, ad­dress­ing the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence in Is­rael. That film be­hind him, he re­turned to the idea of a film about young women “qui­etly re­belling” against Or­tho­dox life, in part­ner­ship with Bri­tish-born Or­tho­dox play­wright, Hadar Gal­ron (best known for Mikve). To­gether, they did ex­ten­sive re­search and in­ter­viewed over 100 women study­ing at Midrashot across Is­rael.

A“There’s a fem­i­nist revo­lu­tion tak­ing place within the Jewish Or­tho­dox world,” Nesher ex­plains. “And I was fas­ci­nated by th­ese women who are try­ing to change the Or­tho­dox struc­ture from within without toss­ing the baby out with the dirty wa­ter. Women who are very de­vout, re­li­gious, se­ri­ous, com­mit­ted to a full-scale re­li­gious life­style, yet they re­sist the tra­di­tional Or­tho­dox ap­proach whereby men run ev­ery­thing. Right now in Is­rael, you have nine or 10 spe­cial places where Or­tho­dox women go to study, and that is the beginning of the revo­lu­tion.” By the time their re­search was com­plete, Nesher and Gal­ron had mas­tered se­cre­tive Midrashah life.

“Th­ese young women go to study for one year and then they get mar­ried, have kids and be­come hu­man in­cu­ba­tors. But that is not their agenda. The big dream is one day to have a fe­male Or­tho­dox rabbi. This they do not dare say out loud. It’s some­thing they dream about qui­etly. I re­ally find th­ese women ex­traor­di­nary. They’re un­be­liev­ably bright. Al­most all of them have strong fathers, in­flu­en­tial fathers. It’s al­most as though the fathers are torn be­tween tra­di­tion and their af­fec­tion for their own bril­liant daugh­ters.”

Nesher’s own fa­ther, a Ro­ma­nian-born diplo­mat, never ac­cli­ma­tised to Is­raeli life. His mother, a filmlover, came from Rus­sia. Nesher was born in Tel Aviv on De­cem­ber 13 1953 and raised mostly in New York, where he at­tended yeshivah.

“My fam­ily was not re­li­gious,” he ex­plains. “But when my fa­ther was sta­tioned in New York they sent me to yeshivah be­cause they wanted me to main­tain my He­brew. When we were mak­ing The Se­crets, when we’d need the per­mis­sion of rab­bis to shoot on this site or that site, I’d go and meet them and they thought they were meet­ing this di­rec­tor of very sec­u­lar movies from Tel Aviv. And within five min­utes, we were talk­ing Tal­mud. That made ev­ery­thing comfortable.”

Af­ter yeshivah and mil­i­tary ser­vice, Nesher read Soviet stud­ies at Columbia Uni­ver­sity. Upon grad­u­at­ing, he took film classes and worked as a film critic, be­fore find­ing early suc­cess with films like his di­rec­to­rial de­but, The Troupe (1979), and Rage And Glory (1985), about the Stern Gang. The lat­ter at­tracted Hol­ly­wood in­ter­est, lead­ing Nesher to spend 16 years in LA, pro­duc­ing, writ­ing and di­rect­ing films such as Dop­pel­ganger (star­ring Drew Bar­ry­more). He re­turned to Is­rael in 2001 and struck gold with Turn Left At the End of The World, which, like The Se­crets, fea­tures a com­plex pas­sion­ate re­la­tion­ship be­tween two young women.

“When we were re­search­ing, we met a lot of Or­tho­dox women who are not les­bians, who had their first phys­i­cal in­ti­macy with an­other woman.”

De­spite the in­sin­u­a­tion that Naomi and Michelle’s re­la­tion­ship is more about fe­male sex­ual ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the ab­sence of men than les­bian­ism, the film has nev­er­the­less been picked up by gay and les­bian film fes­ti­vals which present it, quite jus­ti­fi­ably, as a supremely mov­ing com­ing-out story. Nesher does not re­ject such a read­ing of the film, but nei­ther does he en­dorse it. “I would not dare say that was my in­ten­tion.”

He finds it in­ter­est­ing that such themes did not de­ter Or­tho­dox com­mu­ni­ties from see­ing the film.

“The ush­ers would tell me that in the morn­ing shows, you would have a lot of Or­tho­dox men and women sneak in to see the movie. I hate to preach to the con­verted. I found it re­ally in­ter­est­ing that the movie pen­e­trated deeply into the other side.”

Nesher and Gal­ron were also in­un­dated with cor­re­spon­dence. “The girls in the film evoked a tremendous sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Young Or­tho­dox women wrote to the film’s web­site shar­ing their sto­ries, it be­came a big place to pour your heart out.”

So does Nesher al­ways hope to make an au­di­ence think harder about a topic? “When­ever I make a movie, it has a sort of po­lit­i­cal or so­cial is­sue to it, but I hate movies which are just about that. I make movies about peo­ple I like and ad­mire.” The Se­crets is screen­ing as part of the UK Jewish Film Fes­ti­val at the Odeon Swiss Cot­tage on Novem­ber 12 and 18 (www.uk­jew­ish­film­fes­ti­val.org.uk)

PHOTO: EYAL LAN­DES­MAN

The Se­crets tracks the awak­en­ing de­sires of a group of young Or­tho­dox women study­ing at a Midrashah in Safed

Avi Nesher: re­spect for re­li­gion

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