Ilya Tovbis talks with director Joshua Z. Weinstein about the intense challenges he faced in making the new fiction film Menashe, the lessons he drew from his prior documentary work, and what it was like to shoot authentically in a Hasidic community whose language he doesn’t speak. Menashe opens in DC-area theaters on August 11 – tickets and more information can be found at menashemovie.com.
ILYA: You’ve made a compelling, heartfelt film here – one about the Hasidic community, and appropriately, one entirely in Yiddish. You’re neither Hasidic, nor a Yiddish speaker, so can you walk us through what attracted you to this story originally?
JOSHUA: I’ve worked in documentaries throughout New York City, and I’ve found it endlessly fascinating: like one summer I went to a beach in all five boroughs, with people from the Bronx, people from Staten Island, people from Queens all of whom have completely different ways of being in the world, but they do all have beaches and I love that.
I remember going with Yoni who produced the film with me to Lag B’Omer in Borough Park, and seeing thousands of people coming together in this communal celebration, which was one of the most foreign but beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed in New York City, and I knew then that I had to make a film based on that very day and somehow, years later, here we did it.
ILYA: Elements of the film are drawn from Menashe’s real-life experience. How closely did the story cleave to his?
JOSHUA: I wanted to structure the film into such a unique narrative that if you weren’t from the community, you could never imagine that the storyline was possible. I started casting people to see what actors there were—because literally only a handful of actors from the community showed up for auditions—and Menashe clearly was so exceptional in his casting tape, and then during that process he told me a few details about his life.
One was that his wife passed away—he was a widower. Two, that he lost custody of his son. And then the other two details are that he works at a grocery store and the apartment he lives [in the film] is based on his own apartment.
Everything else, the actual narrative arch of the film is completely made up: the brother-in-law character, the Rabbi and others were fictionalized moments that I thought would convey the emotional truth of what I heard from Menashe’s situation.
“People from the community were pressuring our producers not to make the film […]
In this community most aspects of what we were doing are banned.”
ILYA: You mentioned just now a little bit about the casting, and the notion that only 60 people showed up is pretty unexpected for a film of this stature. To getting so few people coming to a casting call. Especially with that in mind, it’s even more incredible the degree to which the film is propelled by two incredible leads –Menashe of course, and then also this little boy Rubin Nuborski. Can you talk about how you found Rubin?
JOSHUA: Originally we were trying to find a kid who lived in Borough Park and it just wasn’t happening. We did casting tapes with some really great kids, but the parents just had too much to risk to having their kids be in the movie. Basically, if your child does something that’s considered out of the norm, they have very bad marriage prospects and then they have, what people from the community think of as bad life prospects after that. So, we couldn’t get a child could commit to doing it.
So then we reached out to the wider Yiddish-speaking world and Rubin’s parents (who were completely incredible partners in making this film) are Yiddish experts—they have PhDs in Yiddish—and his mom, luckily enough, was teaching at John Hopkins for the year, so Rubin was living in in Maryland. He came up for an audition and we were so incredibly moved and touched by this charming kid who could juggle; we were so happy to find him.
ILYA: Yeah, it’s a very unusual set of circumstances for making a film. Beyond the casting, the saga behind getting this film off the ground is pretty extraordinary, a riveting drama in and of itself. Can you talk about some of the other challenges you faced in mounting the production?
JOSHUA: Well first off, no one thought this was a good idea to make this movie. I had to fund the first half of production myself, and literally money was so tight we sent back half the lighting because I preferred to have more days with actors than have more lights on set. That was just the typical issue for making a low-budget film.
In the community that we cast, I originally I wrote a father-in-law character. It was supposed to be this inter-generational drama between Menashe and his father-in-law, but the father-in-law actor just quit on us a week before shooting. I don’t know if he was pressured not to be in it, or what happened. Then another actor we cast, he quit on us a few days before shooting, so the current brother-in-law was not the actor cast for the role.
People from the community were pressuring our producers not to make the film; they were pressuring Menashe not to be in the film. In this community most aspects of what we were doing are banned. People are not supposed to use internet, people are not supposed to listen to modern music, people are not supposed to watch movies. And this is what the rabbis tell their followers.
ILYA: I understand some of the actors, like Menashe himself, had never even been in a movie theater before? Did that prove an advantage as a director – that he didn’t have preconceived notions (or at least the same as we might) of what a film is, or how one is supposed to act?
JOSHUA: We couldn’t get actors like this who have experience, they don’t exist. For this project, it was a must to work with non-actors. And each person brings their own unique personality and quirks, and it’s my job to work with that and figure out how that could work in a fictionalized context. So it definitely was quirky and difficult and, acting is hard—even for talented people who have lots of experience—but I don’t think I could’ve gotten performances or performers from professionals. It wasn’t an option for this movie.
The best part was that all these actors had life experience that they could bring to the table—they just knew the world better than I knew the world. It’s funny, because you know when you have a challenge sometimes and you stop thinking of it as a challenge and you just try to figure out solutions for it?
ILYA: Prior to shooting this film, you had done extensive work as a documentary cinematographer. While Menashe isn’t a documentary, are there lessons about how to shoot with authenticity—the film feels very genuine—that translated from your earlier film work?
JOSHUA: I think I brought a lot of that [documentary experience] into this. The first thing is to be sensitive. I’ve worked on fiction films where the directors yell and scream and just treat the set like their kingdom.
For me, half of the job was to make the actors feel relaxed – I knew that if they felt comfortable, they would perform well.
Also I was okay with improvisation and making up new scenes on the fly, because I do that in documentary film all the time.
The documentary world really taught me that whatever the situation is and no matter how bad it is, that you find something positive there, and you work with it. Like in the mikvah scene – I had not been able to scout that mikvah. We’re only going to get two hours in that mikvah, and literally we had one day, one time and we had to go and do it. So that sucks. I love to plan out everything meticulously, but some days you just don’t have the chance to do it. And then you have those two hours and you just have to make it work.
“The best part was that all these actors had life experience that they could bring
to the table—they just knew the world better than I knew the world.”
ILYA: I think that scene worked brilliantly – hard to gather from the outside that you only had two hours to work on it.
JOSHUA: It was rough, but you have to make so many decisions so quickly in ways unlike that for fiction film and commercial projects I do. There, you have the luxury of planning everything out meticulously before you get there, which is incredible, and that’s the way it should be, but we never had that luxury.
ILYA: Can you talk about the decision to shoot in Yiddish? On one hand, you do have a vibrant community that’s using the language every day in Brooklyn, and on the other, it’s all but disappeared from popular American culture.
JOSHUA: I chose Yiddish just because that’s the language people actually speak in Borough Park and to do anything else would have just been silly.
In terms of it being a goal to help make a resurgence in Yiddish movies and to bring back an industry—that was not my goal.
However, I do generally regret that Yiddish is not a language spoken anymore. It seems like some of the best Jewish art was written in Yiddish—plays, music, newspapers, books. I was part of the generation that was taught Hebrew as our language, so there’s a memory of our past—of Ashkenazi past—that’s basically evaporated overnight because we chose Hebrew over Yiddish.
ILYA: Has being embedded in this project for so long given you a different perspective, or approach, to your own Judaism?
JOSHUA: It really has not. I come about films like an ethnographer, and I’ve done projects all throughout the world and America. I’ve been in Indian cultures; I’ve been in the Philippines, and taxi culture so to me, making an Hassidic film is no different than making a film about cab drivers in Queens that I’ve done. Or making a film about a doctor in India and about his patients because it’s just another ethnographic look at a society that I knew nothing about.
I was always fascinated, though, that these people are my brothers, these people are my cousins, but I don’t really know anything about them and they don’t know anything about me.
ILYA: What’s next for you? Do you plan to work with Menashe [the actor] again?
JOSHUA: Menashe is the most interesting Jewish actor that I’ve ever seen and I’m excited to see what he chooses to do next. To be a religious person like him and to stay in the community and to be an actor, he has to make very difficult decisions throughout his life, and I’m just excited and curious to know what he chooses.
I’m definitely not making another Yiddish Film. But I would love to write a part for him in any movie I make.