Review: Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein 2012)

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In my last post (which, as usual, was too long ago!), I wrote about how the best fiction and discussions about marginalised groups are created by people in that group. Then I saw Fill the Void, which I think is a really good example of the kind of art from viewpoints we don’t often hear from, that should get out there more. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, it isn’t even distanced from its characters’ lives by history. Rama Burshtein’s debut feature Fill the Void is set in a contemporary world I knew nothing about – the Orthodox Hassidic community, where there’s a huge social focus on arranged marriages.

The film begins with its eighteen-year-old heroine Shira and her aunt spying on a potential match in the supermarket, and the theme of marriage – meeting prospective husbands, attending weddings, arrangements falling through – dominates almost every conversation, as the characters follow it with an intense interested designed to, perhaps, fill the existential void referred to in the title. This film fails the Bechdel Test, but on purpose – the female characters talk to each other about men and matrimony because it’s such an important part of the story and their lives. As an outsider, I can’t judge how accurately this film represents the community, but it feels authentic and I found it an eye-opening insight.

Shira seeks advice on her first meeting with her prospective husband from her pregnant sister, Esther. But Esther soon collapses at a family gathering, and is taken to hospital where she dies in childbirth. Her family and her husband Yochay mourn her loss and care for her newborn son, but soon the question arises of whether Yochay should remarry. Desperate to stay in contact with her grandchild, Shira’s mother suggests that she should become her brother-in-law’s second wife.

The stage is set for a conflict between Shira’s loyalty to her family and need to work out what she wants and whether or not that includes Yochay. Burshtein’s treatment of those issues is tasteful and unexpected. Fill the Void is a slow-burning film, with its emotions handled as delicately as expensive china – yet a real pain is present in, for instance, the scene at Esther’s son’s bar mitzvah, where one of the prayers makes a reference to ‘his father and mother’ and the rabbi has to hastily correct it. We see Shira’s dilemma unfold slowly, with no judgement on what’s the right or wrong decision to make in this situation, just a lot of thoughtful observation of all the characters coping with the hand life has dealt them. The question of whether Shira and Yochay love each other and can be happy together is left to the audience to decide, and I’m still not sure about it. The film is shot almost entirely indoors – even when it goes outside, its often to the confines of a yard or bus stop – and in close-ups of characters’ faces, enforcing the sense of a limited focus on a faint but intense spectrum of emotions. This is helped tremendously by Hadas Yaron’s astonishing performance as Shira. She is subtle and restrained – making her character’s one moment of emotional crisis all the more powerful – but all the shades of painful emotion she goes through flitter across her delicately pretty face. Hopefully she’ll be in more films soon. All the supporting cast are excellent as well, particularly Irit Sheleg as Shira’s grieving, commanding mother.

Probably because Burshtein is herself Orthodox Jewish, she does an excellent job of managing the tricky task of representing a conservative culture’s values respectfully, but with an awareness of the problem they sometimes cause. Shira wants an arranged marriage and no one coerces her into a choice of husband. At the same time, her choice is made within the confines her society has put on her life. Shira is shown strumming an accordion in several scenes – but when asked by yet another suitor if she enjoys playing it, she replies that it’s the only instrument she knows how to use.

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Filed under Feminism, Film, Social Justice

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