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Fill the Void

June 8, 2013
Fill the Void

Rama Burshtein is clearly a technically adept filmmaker. Her first film, Fill the Void looks and sounds beautiful, and her script is a meticulously-crafted vignette set in the orthodox community of Tel Aviv. And while I don’t doubt that the story is an accurate reflection of its setting, I have real problem with the way it refuses to question a radically anti-feminist culture when that culture itself seems central to most of the problems that arise.

The problems begin with Shira (Hadas Yaron). She’s eighteen, so her parents — Rivka (Irit Sheleg) and Aharon (Chayim Sharir) — are trying to marry her off. This is important, because there is literally nothing else of value for a woman in this community. Shira’s friend, Shifi (Yael Tal), is ecstatic over her engagement to a good man — literally, Yosef Goodman — from New York whom she has never met; the fact of her upcoming marriage alone gives her life meaning. Shifi’s older sister, Frieda (Hila Feldman) is beginning to panic at the prospect of life as an old maid. Shira’s Aunt Hanna (Razia Israeli) has never married, and there is a palpable sense of shame from her and pity from others over it, even more than over the fact that she has no arms.

Shira’s older sister, Esther (Renana Raz) got married to Yochay (Yiftach Klein), and is now expecting her first baby. But she dies in childbirth, leaving Yochay with his infant son, Mordechay. It’s not long before Yochay must remarry — this is just a fact; the film explicitly states that he has no choice — and the best offer is a widow in Belgium, which would take Rivka’s last remaining connection to her oldest daughter away. The idea is floated: what if Shira were to marry Yochay?

The rest of the film is a dance around the details of how this will or won’t happen. What does Yochay want? what would Esther have wanted? what do people think Shira wants? At one point a rabbi asks Shira how she feels, insisting that this is all that matters — which flies in the face of everything that has been shown so far — and then proceeds to tell her she’s not being honest.

I could actually really like a film that portrayed this culture realistically with the intent of holding it up for critical examination, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. At no point does anyone suggest that a woman’s life can have any value without her being married. Maybe, maybe Burshtein intends her shallow depth of field to suggest the constrictions that this Hasidic community places on women, but she needs to be far more explicit if that’s supposed to be her point. I don’t believe she set out to produce a reactionary, anti-feminist screed, but in its tacit approval the film veers dangerously in that direction, intentionally or not.

I’m not going to go so far as to decree that nobody should live like this, but I will say that nobody should have to. Esther seems to have been happy and fulfilled as a wife and expectant mother, and that’s fine. Shira doesn’t feel as certain; these pressures and boundaries are making her miserable, and Frieda and Hanna show us what is in store if she doesn’t find someone, anyone to marry. Even in her happiest moment we find her shokeling in her seat, but it reads like nothing so much as an autistic child’s terrified attempts at self-soothing.

When society starts making people miserable there is a problem, and it is the place of art to call these problems out. Fill the Void seems to fall far short of this duty, if not to renounce it outright. For all the technical skill in the gilding, this is still a cage.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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