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Frum Female Underground Films

A spate of Orthodox women are turning to filmmaking (some restrictions apply)

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From the trailer of Lara Gedzelman’s film The Chairlady. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original stills via Vimeo.)

But Frankl also touches on the fact that showing her film at screenings has so far turned out to be less than productive, financially—when she showed it last Hanukkah, it cost thousands to advertise, rent space, and equipment, and the marketers who arrange screenings can demand upwards of 60 percent of the incoming ticket sales. “It’s just not worth it,” she told me, before explaining that she had therefore decided to focus on DVD sales for her first film, Anonymous Benefactor, released last fall, about a young religious widow raising three daughters in Brooklyn who receives mysterious acts of kindness when she faces financial ruin. The film has sold well, Frankl says, and she receives requests for it from around the world, even as far as Antwerp, Belgium. She’s now about to release a second film, a dance piece, straight to DVD without any public screenings. It will be distributed by Mostly Music, the Brooklyn-based music distributor, whose division Aderet Music is one of the main distribution channels of women’s films and music worldwide.


Silverman says that one of her role models is Robin Garbose, an Orthodox director based in Los Angeles who works with Kol Neshama, her performing-arts conservatory for religious girls, with whom she produced two movie musicals. “Robin is like a fire,” she told me. “She knows how to work the camera, she follows the rules of film, she combines the secular feel of film [with religious scripts.]”

Prior to becoming Orthodox 20 years ago, Garbose directed theater and television in New York and Los Angeles: She works with a larger budget, professional adult cast, and a Hollywood crew. She has screened her women’s films A Light for Greytowers and The Heart That Sings to mainstream festivals including the Atlanta and Jerusalem Jewish Film Festivals, in addition to ultra-Orthodox crowds in the United States and Israel. Garbose says women’s films are “a profitable niche market and it’s growing.” When we met in November on one of her trips to New York, she described a memorable scene in Boro Park one intermediate holiday when she screened her film in a lineup of other showings.

“There were Hasidic women saying, ‘I’m going to see this film tonight and that film tomorrow night,’ ” Garbose told me. “They were saying, ‘I feel like I’m on Broadway!’ ”

Still, aside from Garbose, no one is taking films made for the frum community to the outside world. Most religious filmmakers are still struggling to be accepted even within their own communities. When I met Lara Gedzelman for breakfast on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush before Purim, the actress-turned-director and writer explained the flip side of frum filmmaking. Her first foray into film was collaborating with Silverman on The Chairlady, about a stay-at-home mom who organizes the competitive “Lady’s Auxiliary Tea.” Gedzelman, who lives in Passaic, N.J., had to cut a scene that showed a pregnant woman on bed rest because in certain Hasidic sects pregnancy is never discussed out of respect to women’s modesty.

“Either you make a widely popular film or there’s no room for a niche film in this niche market,” Gedzelman said. The women watching these films, according to Gedzelman, don’t watch secular movies—they are “a subset of a subset” in the Orthodox world. “It would be nice if we can make cinema relevant to us even if we see [secular films],” Gedzelman said. “Sometimes by catering to one group you automatically make it unpalatable to another group within the frum community.” These audiences tend to like unrealistic suspense, which doesn’t go over too well in the more modern communities, for example. “It’s difficult because different people have different sensitivities so it’s hard to make something everyone can enjoy,” Gedzelman explained. “Especially when the different guidelines are somewhat arbitrary.”

Which may be why Gedzelman, Silverman, and Garbose are all working on crossover films that aspire to greater freedom of expression and possibly higher-caliber art. As Silverman put it: “My dream is to make frum films good enough for the secular world.”


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julis123 says:

Maybe she should try making an anti-Israel film. It will definitely get reviewed in the NYT and be a big hit at all the international film festivals.

There are some  questions here that just beg to be asked of these film makers – why can’t ultra-Orthodox women (and men)  go to the movies? Why do so many of these movies have Nazis and other anti-Semites in them? Why go along with a rule that says that mentioning pregnancy is immodest (in a society where the women are pregnant much of the time)? What’s so great about people who have never seen movies making them? 

gemel says:

Obviously you do not understand the Halacha, the rules that the Orthodox community lives by. If you educate yourself about that, the answers to your questions will be revealed. 

If I put it in a phrase, serving G-d through following the Torah and commandments is the primary focus of the Orthodox life.

TheHolyBeggar says:

Even the kavanah of “modesty” is not available without strings to a sincere woman. 

I am aware of the “need” to obtain a spiritual leader’s  hecksher to  do this or that. When I feel the impulse, it is usually an innocent but conscious act; I seek a blessing or at minimum present myself out of respect because it impacts a community, and the response is usually a “no”. To press on with a plan anyway without the permission or against a prohibition might release a lashan hara into the community … at best.How long can a creative, thinking woman put up with the iron-fisted authority? When will men be free to walk in the light, when will their holy learning make them whole beings who walk in the world upright for a full lifetime? As the “Light unto the nations”, Jews have proven to be highly successful in creating iconic images and stories that have the potential to realign secular society. I applaud these women’s inspired effort and hope to see these films.

mkublin says:

Lisa, I would like to answer your questions.  I am not a rabbi, but I am an Orthodox writer and producer. 
1. Many Orthodox Jews don’t watch movies because main-stream movies almost always have at least some content they don’t want exposure to, some of which is even forbidden due to modesty standards.  This includes language, clothing, behavior, and situations that secular society considers perfectly acceptable.  If you don’t want to see it, you just don’t buy a ticket, right?
2. Jewish movies are likely to explore themes of oppression and antisemitism as sources of conflict and obstacles to overcome in much the same way that any good movie relies on conflict for a story to come to life.  No conflict; no plot.  Much is written about antisemitism because writers are encouraged to “write what you know.”  Unfortunately, hatred of the Jewish people is still a rampant, global problem.  
3.  Mentioning pregnancy is not universally prohibited, but there are some sensitive to its discussion because of how one gets that way, and so as not to incite jealousy or ill feelings from, say, a couple having trouble conceiving or who has lost a child, G-d forbid.
4. “What’s so great” is that human beings have a natural impulse to create and express themselves.  When your religious beliefs do not allow an “anything goes” approach to the material you can include, or even what audience will see it, those restrictions can become opportunities for amazing creativity and artistic choices.  Like they say, talent always rises to the top.  What’s great is that another voice is being heard.  Another story is being told.  Another point of view enters the democracy of film as commentary and conversation.
Thank you for your questions.  I hope these answers shed a little light on the beauty of Torah values, and that those values do not need to be sacrificed to make art.  Just as Hollywood uses fake blood and stunt-men for the big cowboy shoot-out, to keep anyone from really suffering physically, these filmmakers are using care to keep anyone in their community or their audience from suffering spiritually.

Joseph Nerenberg says:

 Would also be a big hit in Satmar circles!

Joseph Nerenberg says:

 Perhaps you can enlighten us as to why censored books are okay, but not censored movies? What is it about film that is fundamentally different than mags or books?

Also: There are plenty of orthodox people who watch movies so methinks your paintbrush might be a tad too wide.

gemel says:

Am unable to respond to e-mails until at the earliest on Tuesday, May 29th – and possibly not until June 7th.
Be well and joyous.

poppyrose88 says:

Although unintended I’m sure, your reply is redolent of  condescension.   So, might I also respectfully suggest that, as ‘writers are encouraged to ‘write what you know’ perhaps these protected, venerated and talented ultra-orthodox women should consider producing a documentary on the physical and mental abuse in their community or the shameful concealing of paedophillia, or perhaps the sad fact that grown men spit on young girls, or  even that so many of their community brazenly live on welfare.  Perhaps these budding film makers should also desist from mentioning cholent, chicken soup and kreplach in their movies, after all food scarcity is still a rampant  global problem.  Respectfully again, this community would best serve its needs  by educating itself, exposing its youth to the frailties of the world in which they live and equipping them  to cope with life in 2012 rather than lurking in the shadows of their mediaeval and self-destructive ideas.     

Alexis Abrams says:

I personally don’t see what was redolent of condescenscion in anything mkublin wrote in response to a question.  Is it that 
mkublin did not complain that these films don’t address the issues you feel they should address?  

I’m glad you wrote about this in a respectful way. Lots of women love these movies and they are a great outlet for the people who create them.

ThorsProvoni says:

Until one of these filmmakers makes an anti-Zionist film or looks at the long history of Jewish abuse of non-Jews, these movies just look like Jewish naval-gazing or self-indoctrination.

Two good books that could serve as sources for cinema that Jews should watch are:

A Murder in Lemberg by Stanislawski and

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Bloom

Stanislawski’s book shows the machinations of wealthy Jews to maintain their power base and the willingness of ordinary Jews to commit crimes in the service of wealthy or powerful Jews.

Now that Rubashkin is in jail, it behooves Jews to look carefully at their business practices.

julis123 says:

 Actually I’d say that it behooves you to examine your creepy sicko antisemitism

ThorsProvoni says:

You should perhaps visit a psychiatrist. Your unwillingness to permit facts to interfere with  your worldview indicates a vibrant and robust developing psychosis.

mkublin says:

Dear PoppyRose,
I did not mean to condescend, only to answer the questions from my perspective.  I don’t even have any way of knowing if Lisa’s questions were sincere, so I tread lightly.  Be fair – were your suggestions about food exclusions free from sarcasm?  If so, to answer, cholent and chicken soup are not forbidden, but wearing a bikini is.

You speak of shedding light on abuses in these communities, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that there needs to be vast improvements in education and enlightenment in the areas concerning any types of abuse, victims’ rights, as well as the important fact that victims should not be shamed, and that abusers should be stopped and punished.  G-d gave us the Torah, and the Torah calls for justice.  It’s ideals and rules are our preservation and our future, including the moral laws that are supposed to protect us from physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse.  Violations of these laws cannot be ignored.  Abuses must be reported.  Victims need compassion and support. 

Certain Hasidic sects need to broaden their view on this and worry more about individuals than the “reputation” of their community, or any archaic fears of “stigmas” that may result from reporting immoral, criminal acts.

Your comment about a grown man spitting on a girl refers to an incident, and others like it, unfortunately, carried out by a tiny sect of extremists from whom almost all of the Orthodox world has distanced themselves.  Such a sect does not represent Orthodox Jews or their values any more than a street gang in South Central L.A. should be used as the social barometer for “how Americans behave.”  That’s what their behavior has reduced them to: a gang of thugs.

There are many issues facing Jewish communities today, and Jews around the world.  I wasn’t trying take on that whole world.  The article was about films.  If you want to talk about medieval ideas, we should discuss paintings.  (Nor sarcasm – Just a joke.)

Jewish people need to care enough about one another, regardless of affiliation or level of observance, to keep an open dialogue so that together we can tackle these important issues.

mkublin says:

Love your movie idea: The stereotyping!  The sweeping generalizations!  All the makings of a good conspiracy-theory film.   
The make-up department will have to equip everyone with their horns, I suppose.  (Or powder down their real ones?  How far do you take your ignorance?)
Should the director offer any advice to his or her actors other than the note to constantly rub their hands together in the traditional,  greedy Shylock fashion?
Jew Actor: “What’s my motivation?”  
Jew Director: “Money!”

I love that you know what Jews should watch and what Jews should do, and what Jews should look at.  What box cars would you lead us to?

SASGraphicD says:

I do understand Halacha, Torah, Talmud, and the Zohar. However, what I don’t understand is how any community can keep it’s people so isolated from our shrinking global world that they can not use the mind that G-d gave them to make their own decisions without asking a Rebbe (or any other leader) no matter how well educated or spiritual they may claim to be. The truth is that the basic foundation of spirituality … Love thy neighbor as you would yourself … Is being ignored because ultra-Orthadox Jews have no more tolerance for each other’s sects or other sects within Judiasm than the Romans had for Jesus, who was born a Jew, and also studied Torah and probably the Zohar. Mankind used their freedom of choice to interpret G-d’s Light, and mankind including the Ultr-Orthodox have interpreted Torah. An isolated community, no matter how righteous, is still isolated from the rest of G-d’s creations, thus breeding intolerance and lack of understanding. Mankind was given the ability to think and thus create many cures, but the only cure for ignorance is a willingness to see see this tiny planet as G-d’s creation where each individual soul has the right to learn about each other so that tolerance can begin. Only G-d in the end should judge, not man (nor woman).

gemel says:

Am unable to respond to e-mails until at the earliest on Tuesday, May 29th – and possibly not until June 7th.
Be well and joyous.

SASGraphicD says:

I try to always learn as much as I can about the Ultra-Orthodox world. I applaud these woman, but I still find the lack of acceptance of at least allowing the outside world to be viewed by many of these communities to be worrisome. I personally know of a grandparent who can not see his own 13 grandchildren because he did not obtain a religious divorce (ghet) from his daughter’s Orthodox community Rebbe, but rather from The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) so his new wife is not considered to be his wife at all. How about some tolerance between Jewish sects, let alone the rest of the world.

I am old enough to tell you from personal experience that if the Frum community had been more worldly they would have known the Shoah was coming and perhaps left in droves before September 1939.
This isolation is not good for our health or well being. A good reading of  Mein Kampf might have been the forewarning.  
Each little group listens to their rabbi as if the man hears the voice of Hashem.  Far from it.  Most only want control over their bailiwick.  Few are able to enter the other realms and return. 
Jews are supposed to think for themselves. And to be truly religious you have to learn everything you can about human nature.  If all is forbidden to you and you have never seen the outside world you are but a parrot at best rather than a true holy person.


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Frum Female Underground Films

A spate of Orthodox women are turning to filmmaking (some restrictions apply)

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