Movies: Interview with Joshua Z. Weinstein
A documentary filmmaker explores the closed world of New York’s Hasidic community in his first narrative feature shot entirely in Yiddish with amateur actors and a leading man who’d never set foot in a cinema
By Katherine Monk
There are approximately 330,000 Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jews living in New York City, yet, the community remains largely closed and somewhat mysterious to outsiders. Filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein wanted to know more, so he focused his documentary skills on the world at his doorstep in the boroughs and neighbourhoods of his native New York City.
The result is Menashe, a narrative feature shot entirely in Yiddish with an amateur cast of community members — some of whom had never set foot in a theatre until the film’s debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Weinstein says the experience was rich and memorable, but it’s not something he’ll do again — if only because as a director, he’d like to understand the dialogue next time.
The Ex-Press spoke with Weinstein during a recent promotional tour, where we caught up with him in a Toronto hotel room.
EX-PRESS: Did you grow up in New York? How much did you know about the Hasidic community before this started? Is this part of your story?
JOSHUA Z. WEINSTEIN: No. I am not Orthodox. I grew up a regular New York Jew. But I was always fascinated by the religion. I come from the documentary world, where I’d been working for seven years, and I had a tough summer in 2014. I did an end-of-life care movie for PBS, and then I was doing docs in Africa. And after watching people die of these terrible illnesses and disease, I came back home and talked to my wife. I told her I wanted to make something that was just as interesting and exotic to me as being overseas, but still be able to sleep at my own home every night. And the Hasidic world seemed to be just that. It’s a world hasn’t really been depicted on screen that often. All the depictions in the past, such as Fill the Void, and a few Hollywood ones, feel completely misrepresentative of life in these areas… Not that life is all roses all the time, but there is humour. It can be hysterical. Jewish humour is amazing. And here are these people… the have these big communal gatherings, and they are so spiritual.
EX-PRESS: So it was the spiritual side that interested you?
WEINSTEIN: For me, intellectually, as a story, I was more interested in how and why people chose to stay… In liberal society, if you don’t like something, you leave. But Menashe, for all intents and purposes, is an outsider. So why doesn’t he leave? I thought that was a more interesting thesis.
EX-PRESS: What was your prior knowledge of the community?
WEINSTEIN: It was all a learning experience for me. I knew nothing except what I gleaned from every day encounters as a native New Yorker. For me, filmmaking it about learning and educating myself. And this had it all. I love learning about something I know nothing about.
EX-PRESS: Because the community is so closed… It can get pigeonholed. Did you have to unlearn anything?
WEINSTEIN: Yes. I don’t know about Vancouver, but in New York, it seems there is always some story in the Times or the Post about the Hasidic community that is more salacious than the next. And that will happen when you have a community that doesn’t believe in the legal system. It presents a problem. The film mentions some of those problems…
EX-PRESS: What were some of the things you learned right off the bat?
WEINSTEIN: I wasn’t completely ignorant. But I had no idea there were 40 Hasidic groups in New York, and each one has its own rabbi. Also how do you decide which strawberries to buy, which shoes to buy. Those things I knew nothing about. I also found it fascinating to know how the Bible is still, arguably, is a way of life for people in a very real way.
EX-PRESS: Are you faithful? Did it give you added insight into your own spiritual self?
WEINSTEIN: Judaism is important to me. And I have immense appreciation for people who are dedicated to their faith. I am not so dedicated as those people, but I do think we are seeking something in our society today. I mean, what is taking off? Yoga? Buddhism? I think our society has been deprived of a spiritual element and so we’re looking for things from different places. But at the same time, here are a group of Europeans who are deriving importance and meaning from something that has been practiced for over 3000 years.
EX-PRESS: It is a huge topic and we are searching for something, clearly. Is this the beginning of a spiritual path for you?
WEINSTEIN: No. Not like this. I am definitely never going to make a Yiddish movie again. It was a challenge that seemed worthy of two years of my life to pursue. But I have not made Jewish films in the past and I don’t intend to make particularly Jewish films in the future. To me, filmmaking is about learning and understanding. So for me, it’s about whatever I become interested in. I am now writing a film about a different part of society. As a liberal and a New Yorker, I am fascinated by conservatism. I am even more interested in how little understanding there is between conservatives and liberals.
EX-PRESS: The U.S. is so polarized. Any insights as to why?
WEINSTEIN: If I could answer that, I would be making a lot more money.
EX-PRESS: Coming from a documentary background must have informed how you made this movie. What changed for you, as a director, given this is your first narrative feature?
WEINSTEIN: Well, now I have an LA agent. It was never a goal. It’s not my goal to make Hollywood movies. I think coming from docs, I really got the experience to humanity in all it’s forms, from small villages in India to life-threatening illnesses. I come to every story from a nuanced perspective, I think. I challenge myself to understand the differences. I treat differences as something special — something that should be understood and explained. You know, I started watching the films of D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles. Then it was the neorealists… De Sica and Satyajit Ray, now the Dardennes brothers. I think they all find the nuances. They all think of film as a humanistic approach to art.
I think the film is a testament to Menashe… He had never been in a movie theatre before we premiered at Sundance. He didn’t think it would work, or that people would laugh, or even be interested. But when it screened in Park City, he heard people laugh and cry. He said it was one of the most moving experiences of his life. And I think it shows how much we need to express ourselves, as people. I mean, look at the cave paintings. We have this need.
EX-PRESS: Tell me about the people you met. How did you enter this community, and how did you enlist their support given it’s closed, and from what I understand, reluctant about embracing technology.
WEINSTEIN: Everyone you see on screen is a non-actor. And so that was hard, because some people committed but backed out at the last minute. We lost people. We lost locations. They were scared. This is a world where people don’t use smart phones. They don’t go to cinemas. It’s world where change is frowned upon. But one of our producers is from a more liberal part of this community, and he made sure we had integrity as filmmakers. At the same time, he ensured everyone was comfortable with what we were doing. The whole thing could have fallen apart at any minute, though.
EX-PRESS: But it didn’t. Did it feel like it just had to happen?
WEINSTEIN: I think the film is a testament to Menashe… He had never been in a movie theatre before we premiered at Sundance. He didn’t think it would work, or that people would laugh, or even be interested. But when it screened in Park City, he heard people laugh and cry. He said it was one of the most moving experiences of his life. And I think it shows how much we need to express ourselves, as people. I mean, look at the cave paintings. We have this need.
EX-PRESS: As far as the particulars of this story, Menashe being unable to see his kid. Was that you? Or him?
WEINSTEIN: That was him. When I met Menashe, he told me about how he lost his wife and was now having a hard time seeing his son. That was enough for me: Fathers and sons are archetypal. It’s deeply ingrained in cinema, from De Sica to Kramer vs. Kramer.
EX-PRESS: Women don’t seem to have a big part. In fact, the role of women in Ultra-Orthodox communities presents problems for 21st century feminists, for a variety of reasons….
WEINSTEIN: I can’t condone the issues of women in this movie, and that’s why we placed a few moments the film to address that. There are many problematic things about the community, but this is not a documentary. It’s the portrait of one man. That’s all. And hopefully, in experiencing his world — his challenges — we can empathize and gain a better understanding of who he is, and each other. I think that’s the one thing film can do really well. It’s why I make movies: Because it helps me understand my world that much better.
Menashe is now playing in select cities.
Photo (Main): Ruben Niborski (Rieven) & Menashe Lustig (Menashe). Photo by Federica Valabrega. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
THE EX-PRESS, August 24, 2017