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"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

SF Jewish Film Festival: “Film Fanatic”

Posted by FriarYid on August 1, 2007

film fanatic shtreimels

The second half of my Orthodox double-feature at the SFJFF was Shlomo Hazan’s Film Fanatic. Whereas the subjects of “Yoel, Israel & the Pashkevils” were just sort of doing their thing in the Haredi community, Film Fanatic’s focus is on a rebel struggling to stay within the community’s norms while also being true to his own drive for artistic freedom, as well as financial success. Yehuda Grovais is a Haredi film-making pioneer from Bnei Brak, one of the first in Israel’s Haredi world to try to bridge the gap between a public interested in the compelling storytelling (and entertainment) value in films, while officially banned from having televisions or VCRs in their homes or going to movies. The answer: low-budget (and mildly ridiculous) films that are released direct to CDs and DVDs, which Haredi families can watch on home computers. But not everything is going well for Yehuda. In addition to trouble from community leaders, he also has to deal with increasing financial difficulties as the Haredi film market starts to decline.

A consistent tension running throughout Film Fanatic is exactly where Yehuda’s identity as a filmmaker and Haredi lies. At one point, a Haredi-looking journalist interviewing Yehuda explains to the cameras that he’s a “former” Haredi, a “failed” Haredi. He doesn’t think like one, and he suggests that Haredim with certain jobs get placed on the periphery of the community- no serious Haredi journalist, for instance, can do without the Internet, even though the rabbis have banned it. Similarly, the journalist predicts, Yehuda’s interests in film will eventually force him to leave the community. Yehuda, however, disagrees, saying that he can bridge the gap. Some of this also comes through when Yehuda meets with Udi Leon, of the secular Gesher Fund. Leon is a kind of mentor to Yehuda, but the two clash when it comes to things like artistic vision. Leon sees Yehuda’s films as overly didactic and religious, and says they won’t work with mainstream audiences or on feature films. Yehuda, on the other hand, doesn’t seem interested in reaching out to a larger audience. He’s more concerned with getting funding so he can make movies that appeal to Haredim. At one point an exasperated Leon says that Yehuda and the Haredi filmmakers need to learn to create their own cinematic language, like Iranian cinema did to get around its own modesty codes. Yehuda counters by saying he shouldn’t waste his time with such things when Hollywood has already given him a useful and functional model. “When our kids sneak into the cinema, they don’t look at European films, they look at Van Damme and Stephen Segal. Better they should see my movies.” Leon responds, “But if you try to play against Van Damme on his rules, you’ll always lose.” “Then the rabbis are right to ban cinema!” Yehuda yells.

A similar question is how committed Yehuda is to having an artistic motivation at all- he repeatedly says his primary motivation is getting enough money to get out of debt, make a living, and, if possible, to make a few decent films a year. As the film progresses, we see Yehuda increasingly doubting his role as a filmmaker committed to the strictly Haredi point-of-view. He mentions that he stopped bothering to get a “kosher permit” from the rabbis, which gave him more freedom in his films. Speaking with female production assistants, one challenges him by wondering why women can never be shown in Haredi films. “Why not show them in positive roles instead of making us invisible?” He hems and haws, finally admitting that he’s just giving his audience what they want. As they’re talking, an interview with another Haredi filmmaker is being played in the background. Asked a similar question, the other filmmaker says, “We respect our women. Because they have more merit than men, we keep them hidden.” Staring at the screen, Yehuda deadpans and finally chuckles. “I have to admit it, when I see him say it, even I can’t buy it. It sounds ridiculous.”

Another great moment comes when Yehuda is discussing Haredi marketing with an associate. The man gives Yehuda advice such as: promote the film the day before; it doesn’t give your enemies time to put up posters denouncing it. He also cautions against calling it a “cinema.” “If you call it cinema, then the boys will think it’s nothing to go to the cinema. Call it a ‘light-and-sound spectacle’ instead. Market it towards the mothers.” At this point, Hazan can’t control himself, and interrupts. “I’m just picturing a 15-year-old Haredi boy going into the store the next month and asking for a “light-and-sound spectacle on procreation.” In a rare moment of raw, human honesty trumping conditioned community standards, both Haredi men burst out laughing for a good 15 seconds. Even as the other man tells the director “not to talk like that,” Yehuda is still grinning. As funding gets even more scarce (Gesher and another fund turn him down), a desparate Yehuda goes to the Knesset to meet with lawmakers and ask them to support a bill calling for state support of Haredi films. Yehuda actually watches the vote from an Arab MK’s office, saying he’s never felt more aligned with the Arab sector than now. In a devastating moment, Yehuda watches as all the Haredi MKs torpedo the bill. Clearly they know what side they’re on.

This moment seems to seal Yehuda’s decision to move beyond Haredi subject matter. Even though his feature-film scripts have been rejected, he perseveres and makes a short 5 minute film with state funding. Even there, the difficulties don’t stop. Yehuda has to deal with his secular backers wanting to portray his Haredi character with some really awful stereotypes. Even while he’s trying to fight for the integrity of Haredim on-screen, Yehuda is confronted on the set by multiple Haredi men accusing him of heresy. Yehuda comments that he doesn’t care what people think of him anymore. Yehuda’s short film, which focuses on a Haredi man that, contrary to most community norms, chooses to stand still during the Memorial Day Siren (to the irritation of a photographer assigned to get a shot of a Haredi walking during the siren), is itself a testimonial to his desire to transcend boundaries and stereotypes and humanize a group of people usually considered (literally) monochromatic. The film culminates in Yehuda’s film winning the Grand Prize (and 10,000 shekels) at the Haifa Film Festival. Udi Leon presents the award, and Yehuda is vindicated, taking the moment as an opportunity to tell the audience that Haredi cinema does exist, and that he considers himself its ambassador. After the ceremony, he comments to the camera that he feels like an alien and that one of his goals is to humanize the Haredim and show that they are real people instead of just a “black mass.”

The last shot documents another milestone for Yehuda: his newest movie has women in it.

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