When helmer-scribe Rama Burshtein walks the red carpet at Venice on Saturday, she will not be dressed in the usual glamorous fest attire.
The 45-year-old Israeli is an ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jew and her competition player “Fill the Void,” sold by the Match Factory to Italo distrib Lucky Red, is her first feature for a secular audience.
She embraces Jewish religious law to the letter, including following a strict dress code, which means Burshtein covers her hair and wears dark, loose-fitting clothes.
Burshtein’s pic, about a young Haredi bride torn between love and familial obligation, is far from her first stint in the director’s chair.
She has spent the past two decades making movies for the women of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Because they show women on screen, men are barred from viewing them, and they hold little interest for the secular community.
New York-born Burshtein grew up in a secular Jewish family in Kfar Saba, a small city north of Tel Aviv, and at 27, she graduated top of her class from Jerusalem’s prestigious Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television. Three months after graduation, in a plot twist that would make any director’s head spin, she became ultra-Orthodox, adopting Judaism’s most stringent codes of modesty and family life.
Now married with four children, Burshtein said the portal to religious life was her own search for love.
“I became religious because the way they (ultra-Orthodox) work with that enigma between men and women, it was amazing,” she said. Seated in her modest Tel Aviv kitchen, she added that “Fill the Void” was foreshadowed by that momentous choice.
“I knew if I ever made a film it would be through that gate, through the relationship between (ultra-Orthodox) men and women.”
She chose to take her camera beyond the insular religious world, she said, out of a desire to tell her community’s story.
“We have no voice,” she said. “Everyone has their own interpretation of how we live and none of us have really shared our story from within.”
Pic was originally slated to premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, but, along with fellow Israeli helmer Idan Hubel’s “The Cutoff Man,” it was pulled after being accepted by Venice.
Production presented Burshtein with a slew of unique hurdles. Her three main actors — Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein and Irit Sheleg — are all secular. She was never alone on set with her male co-stars, and she said she struggled to avoid any semblance of arrogance, which religious Jews shun.
“The rules were very clear. I prayed a lot and I cried every day,” she said. “I just wanted to come to set and tell a story in the circle of the rules that I love. It wasn’t easy.”
After Venice wraps and she returns to her quiet life in Tel Aviv, Burshtein said she isn’t sure if she’ll make another film. But if she does, it probably won’t take place outside the ultra-Orthodox world.
“Many people do that,” she said. “Not many do what I do.”