Ultra-Orthodox filmmaker takes viewers ‘Through the Wall’

A follow-up rom-com to Rama Burshtein’s ‘Fill the Void,’ this wedding caper will get audiences to think about hope

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Michal, center, with her friend and sister on the way to her wedding in 'Through the Wall' (Courtesy 'Through the Wall')
Michal, center, with her friend and sister on the way to her wedding in 'Through the Wall' (Courtesy 'Through the Wall')

Rama Burshtein believes in hope. The ultra Orthodox filmmaker, whose latest film, “Through the Wall,” is a kind of comic sequel to her groundbreaking and prize-winning “Fill the Void,” said it is about “putting despair to sleep.”

“I can’t be known for anything else,” said Burshtein. “I’m known for being a Jewish, religious, crazy person in love with God, this is what I am. It’s my life and it’s what I’m so proud of. It’s believing that everything is possible when you’re a believer.”

She gave Michal, played by Noa Koler, the protagonist of “Through the Wall,” some of that unshakable, unwavering belief.

A classic romantic comedy, “Through the Wall” tells the tale of Michal, an Israeli woman in her thirties who returned to religion in her twenties and is desperate to be married. She embarks on a frantic series of blind dates set up by a matchmaker, and eventually takes the step of renting an event hall from caterer Shimi (Amos Tamam of ‘Srugim’ fame) and planning her own wedding, albeit without a groom.

The film takes viewers on her race to snag the perfect partner, introducing us to her slightly zany but lovable friends and family, as well as her daily adventures. There’s a trip to a spiritual adviser who smears fish guts on her cheeks, and a journey to Uman in Kiev — de rigeur for many religious acolytes of Reb Nachman of Breslev who is buried there — where she has an “only in Uman” connection with an Israeli rocker who happens to stop in with his band.

“It’s the journey of the viewer and what he thinks will happen,” explained Burshtein. “It was important for me that the viewer experiences what happens to Michal. This whole thing is happening to Michal, and the viewer. None of us know how it will end.”

But we hope, like Michal, that her Prince Charming will show up.

Burshtein agreed that it can be hard to swallow this kind of tale, to believe with one’s heart and not just one’s head, but that’s a statute by which she also lives.

Rama Burshtein, 45, a Tel Aviv-based Haredi filmmaker, wrote and directed "Fill the Void," Israel's official entry into the Oscars' foreign language category. (Lea Golda Holterman via JTA)
Rama Burshtein, 45, a Tel Aviv-based Haredi filmmaker, wrote and directed ‘Fill the Void’ and now ‘Through the Wall’ (Lea Golda Holterman via JTA)

“I don’t believe she could do what she did without the people around her,” said Burshtein. “It’s not an act of loneliness, it’s an act of strength, a way of feeling safe. Even when her mother doesn’t see it ‘eye to eye’ in the deepest sense, she’s there for her all the time. It’s a very strong safety net; if she would’ve been more alone, she would have been portrayed more crazy, but she’s not crazy.”

There’s more than one aspect of the film that is loosely based on Burshtein’s own life as an American who moved to Israel and adopted a religious way of life after attending film school.

“The place where I studied, the midrasha, had all kinds of girls,” she said. “We had girls who dated Japanese rabbis and I had a friend who had braids like Feige,” referring to different characters in the film.

Burshtein told about another friend who bought a long, white shirt at a secondhand store in Jerusalem, wore it on Shabbat and did not realize it was a kittel, the long white robe worn mainly by men as a symbol of purity on Yom Kippur.

“And that’s the ba’al teshuva,” she said, using the Hebrew term for a secular Jew who “returns” to Jewish belief and practice. “The kittel can become a fashion. This kind of world is to say that there’s not a lot of difference, it’s just a question if you are a believer or not a believer.”

Michal, of course, is a believer.

She believes with every breath in her body, which is why a rock star could perhaps turn out to be her Mr. Right, or the guy who says he likes her soul or the deaf date.

“Everything’s open, everything can happen and you say, maybe this guy is my guy — maybe he’ll become religious,” said Burshtein. “You say maybe the whole world can be at peace.”

For Burshtein, romance is the core of the story, just as it was in the more somber, sorrowful tones of “Into the Void.”

“My films will always be about men and women, this is what it is for me, when I was secular and now that I’m religious,” she said. “I just knew that I was going to do a film about putting despair to sleep and believing in good through this tale.”

“Through the Wall” is playing in Israeli theaters and film festivals worldwide.

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