Frum Female Underground Films
A spate of Orthodox women are turning to filmmaking (some restrictions apply)
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.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The new modern translation of Likutey Moharan shows why the Hasidic master is relevant today