Rama Burshtein traverses two worlds like an ethereal being. She is, on one hand, an international jet-setting director, competing at film festivals and picking up awards; on the other, she is an Orthodox Jewish mother and grandmother, deeply spiritual and family-orientated. For most, this would be a life of contradictions, but for Rama it is the only way that makes sense.
Rama’s career has been a recent success, but a long time in the making. She was born in New York, and moved to Tel Aviv aged one. Growing up, she was secular and aspired to be a filmmaker. After leaving the renowned Sam Spiegel Film School, she found religion in Orthodox Judaism and dedicated her life to raising her family.
But that drive to create never left, and at the age of 42, she was debuting her first feature Fill The Void at festivals around the world. It was a deeply personal film, offering a look into Hasidic life that is rarely shown from the inside. Acclaim followed, and after her sophomore release The Wedding Plan, she is celebrated as one of Israel’s leading filmmakers.
What films influenced you when growing up?
My mother says that she took me to my first film when I was three years old. We went to see Gulliver’s Travels in the cinema, and I was screaming when they tied him up. I was shouting “Free him! Free him!” Everyone was looking at me because I was really screaming. From the first time I watched a film, it influenced me. It really made my heart tick.
Then later on, I saw Rusty James (Brian De Palma, released asRumble Fishin the UK). I came out of the cinema and I bought another ticket and saw it again. I love Tarantino, I was crazy about David Lynch, Peter Greenaway for England. Today, I love Andrea Arnold and Jane Campion.
How did your faith become a part of your life?
That’s a good question because you said faith. Faith was there always, I just didn’t think that Judaism had the right amount of spirituality for me. I felt Buddhism was more of what I was looking for. Faith was about the fact that the world has a meaning. I didn’t have a religious faith, but I always believed that whatever happened was not random.
I was 27 years old when I graduated from film school, and I met Judaism without really looking for it. It was an answer to a lot of questions I was asking all my life. It was a very natural thing, to go with what I felt, which is what I always do. When I become religious, I felt it wouldn’t work with filmmaking, but years later I just got back to it. I always wanted to be a filmmaker.
What does your faith bring to your filmmaking?
The thing I truly, truly believe is that everything is possible. Everything means redemption and Holocaust, and everything is possible for both sides. When you live in an open space where everything is possible, this is when you become a believer.
I think in my films I always like to take something that is unbeatable, that is impossible, and then make it possible. This is what I believe in: hope, and never-ending options. This is what it is to be a believer and to be religious in my films, to bring the hope out.
Practically, how does being Jewish affect your filmmaking?
This is how it goes with me being religious: I wake up in the morning and I go to my studio to have my breakfast. Then I go to the beach which is very close, and I sit there and I cry. I say “Please, please, please. Make me smart today. Make me talented today. Give me the thought, give me the scene, give me the vision.” Because for me being Jewish and religious, it means just because I was talented yesterday doesn’t mean I will be talented today. It’s a gift, and it’s something to say thank you for, and to beg for more. There are days when I go back to my studio and nothings happens – I’m this very stupid, not smart, not-thinking person. Then the day later, it changes. It’s very dynamic. If I didn’t have the days I’m not talented, I would always think I’m talented. For me this is about being grateful. Most of what religion brings you is gratefulness, which is something you can forget if you’re not focused on it. You can take things for granted, and then something really bad happens, and then you understand. We try to do it without needing bad things to happen to us. Just being grateful for what we have doesn’t come naturally to us.
You’re currently one of the only female, Orthodox Jewish filmmakers on the international stage – why do you think that is?
A lot of reasons. One: I don’t think that everyone can play two worlds. I don’t say that to praise me, I think the opposite. There’s something very not-delicate and not-pure about me. It makes me able to jump from all those thoughts in my mind. Not a lot of people can do that, being in two different worlds at the same time and just be okay with it.
The other reason is in the Jewish faith, there’s no spare time. There’s always something good to do. It’s not about just spending time in front of the TV, or computer, or film. I think about it like if I told you there’s a gate, and behind it is $1 million waiting for you, if you’re running towards it, would you stop to watch a film?
But we do have a very incredible, crazy film industry with Orthodox women. They do it for women, by women, stories only about women. Only women play, only women watch. It’s the craziest feminist thing! The arts belong to the women in the Orthodox world. The men do other things, they make money, and the women make art, which is very different from the world outside. They’re very different in the way they think. Part of me is like them, and part of me is like you. They’re not that interested in appealing to the outside, to make you understand where they come from. They don’t really care.
So sharing this world and these stories with an international audience, what did you expect the reaction to be?
Going back to Fill The Void in 2012, I didn’t expect anything. I was 42 years old and going out to make my first film. I was not thinking about a career at that point. I just suddenly realised that we don’t have a voice and that’s not a good thing. Everyone thinks they know us, and we don’t make sure that you get it right. It’s time to maybe use all those tools I got when I was younger and try to do something. It came out of pain, it didn’t come out of art. Art was just the form to use. I didn’t expect an international reaction at all; I didn’t expect it to reach an international audience. When it came out at Sundance they really liked it, then it got into competition at the Venice Film Festival.
It was really, really, truly a surprise. I was still in the kitchen at the time! I was raising my kids, I did not feel like I belonged to that scene. Not that I do today, but today is different. It was so surprising, and I couldn’t even really understand what they liked about it. I was not thinking internationally, I was thinking personally, it was a very personal work. It was very interesting because it did so well, and then The Wedding Plandid very well, too. It’s very surprising, I didn’t expect any of it!
When you’re beginning a new project, how do you start forming a story?
When I did Fill The Void, I knew I wanted to do something about men and women because nothing else interests me. Then I found the story, and then it did very well. Then the next project was very different because it was in the shadow of a very successful first film. It was very complicated because you see all those red carpets when you close your eyes. It’s like a drug, it’s a very different process. Usually a second project will be a failure if it’s in the shadow of a good first project.
I think that because I’m not 20 – I’m a grandmother of two – I’m in a very different place. It’s easier for me to listen to my inner voices. Everything I do is to uplift my audience. I’m crazy about my audience, I just want them to feel very good. It doesn’t mean they have to feel light, but they should feel alive.
I am a storyteller. When I think about stories, it’s not about what I want to say. It’s about the story I see in my eyes, my mind, or my heart. It’s usually a story that would uplift me and take me out of my despair, and it will hopefully do the same for you.
Both of your films deal with love and marriage, but especially when they meet loss. What is it about when those two meet?
The restraint and the obstacles – this is what defines the power of what you feel. In my religion it says that when the obstacles come, it’s for you to really connect to what you feel. When the questions are not raised then you can’t define what you feel. The one-liner from Fill The Void was “When an impossible love becomes the only possibility”. This is the journey I always like to do: from impossible to possible.
Your work is quite often compared to Jane Austen, has that ever been a conscious reference for you?
I have to say no, but I understand the connection. In her work, the restraints are there and people do not really rebel. They stay in their world and they find the solution in their world. They don’t hate their world, they cope with it, and they win it.
For me I understand this because this is something I truly wanted. I was 27 when I chose it; it was a choice of the better life. It’s a bit different from Austen, but the fact that there are restraints and you have to work with them, even if sometimes you don’t like them, is what resembles her work.
Where is your work taking you next?
I’m into projects right now, one is a drama TV show. I’m not sure where it’s going to happen, probably the United States. The other one is a documentary project on redemption. We’ll see which one is going to go faster.
Owen Richards met Rama Burshtein at the recent 70 Years of Israeli Cinema Festival in London.