Opening in UK cinemas this Friday, Fill The Void is the feature debut by American Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein. Although it’s set in a place where cinema rarely ventures – namely Tel Avi’s Haredi community – this remarkable drama has universal resonance, as Yasmeen Khan explains…
Rama Burshtein’s debut feature Fill The Void offers a rare glimpse into the Hasidic Jewish community of Tel Aviv that the writer-director herself comes from. It tells the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron), who at 18 has reached the point where she and her family must start to look for a suitable husband for her. The usual course of matchmaking is disrupted, though, by the death of her elder sister in childbirth. Shira’s mother comes up with the shocking idea of marrying her to her widowed brother-in-law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) – a kind of reverse levirate marriage – in order to keep him from leaving the country and to give the baby a mother.
This is an accomplished piece of work, beautifully and confidently made. What’s most striking is the way it anchors the narrative in a very strong religious and cultural context, but decides to remain unspecific about place and time. Fill The Void is a story about Orthodox Jewish people, rooted firmly in that community’s culture, but it takes place mainly in the home. The Tel Aviv location has little to no impact – this could be almost any city, at any point in history. Its importance lies in its lack of importance, as it were. And there’s a universality to the movie’s concerns, too: not everyone comes from a culture where matchmaking is the norm, but the narrative of grief and what it does to a family is something everyone can relate to.
Burshtein herself states in the press notes that, “Fill The Void has nothing whatsoever to do with the religious-secular dialogue.” Viewers don’t need to understand the cultural context, but the picture also doesn’t need to compromise this setting in service of the narrative. It succeeds at giving us a window on family and community, without ever resorting to a simple explanation what’s going on. If you don’t know what Purim is, or how that relates to the names of some of the characters, it’s not going to be spelled out. Such is the strength of a story that exudes confidence despite its context, no matter how closely related they are.
The world of Fill The Void – the family home – takes up relatively little space, but the structures within family and community are complex. Burshtein is interested in the spaces women and men occupy in the home, and how clearly differentiated they are. There’s also a segregation at work that echoes that of the synagogue. The men’s spaces are rigid and ordered: they usually sit around large tables, arranged in ways that reflect societal position. The women gather in the kitchen in a much less formal way, it seems, and the hierarchies are about marital status. All attention is on whoever’s newly engaged, and to be unmarried is a source of pity and shame.
Wisely, the film doesn’t seek either to challenge or excuse these traditional structures – they simply are, and the story happens within them. Burshtein, fairly, compares this environment to that of Jane Austen’s novels: “The parallel is also quite obvious in that Fill The Void takes place in a world where the rules are rigid and clear. The characters are not looking for some way to burst out of that world. Instead, they are trying to find a way to live within it.”
Heightened by gorgeous, soft-focus photography which almost seems to smear its light sources across the frames, the differences between men and women are further accentuated by the set and costume design. Men wear black, heavy, shiny fabrics and gather in dark, formal spaces. Naked flames glow warmly; light is diffused by hair, beards and shtreimels. The women gather in brighter, more amorphous spaces and wear clouds of white, silky, diaphanous fabrics that scatter the light, making their skin luminous. Wedding scenes showing these two worlds meeting are particularly beautiful.
The setting and craft of Fill The Void are fascinating, but they’re primarily the vehicles for its emotional content. First and foremost this is a work about grief and love. Most of its running time is spent trying to find ways into these almost impenetrable feelings. However deeply rooted in culture, the concept of the levirate marriage is a difficult one. But it does provide a way to explore Shira and Yochay’s grief and pain, not to mention their guilt over the feelings of attraction they have for one another – feelings that would normally have remained deeply buried. Because of this focus on the intermingling of grief, love and duty, as well the Orthodox Jewish aspect, Fill The Void is quite reminiscent of Amos Gitai’s haunting, bleak Kadosh (1999) and it carries a similarly deep emotional impact.
Fill The Void is a “little film” and “a tiny story taken from a very special and complex world”, in the words of its maker. She notes also: “I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain. I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue.” And in that sense this is an important film, by virtue of its attempt to be such a voice. Of course, any long-term impact depends on Burshtein’s artistic success, which thankfully is assured by her rewarding, affecting narrative and accomplished direction.
Fill The Void goes on nationwide theatrical release from December 13.