Emotional Ethnography: A Q&A with ‘Menashe’ Director Joshua Weinstein

By | Aug 11, 2017
Arts & Culture, Jewish World, Latest

Director Joshua Weinstein’s camerawork credits include The New York Times, PBS, several Coors Light commercials and a few documentaries. Menashe—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was acquired by A24 for distribution in the U.S. and China—is Weinstein’s first feature fiction film. Set in the isolated ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, the film—entirely in Yiddish—tells the story of a widower struggling for custody of his son within a tradition that demands a mother in every family.

Menashe is unique not only because it’s in Yiddish but because its actors are not career actors; they are members of the Hasidic community. The plot itself is based roughly on the experience of Menashe Lustig, who plays the film’s title character.

Moment speaks with Joshua Weinstein.

What prompted you to make this story a feature fiction film rather than a documentary?

It’s because you could never make this film a documentary. It’s a completely closed off world. What I love about New York City is that every street—every doorway—tells you something else. There’s different people there, different cultures, different ideas. I remember going on Lag B’omer, which happens midway through the film; you see the big bonfire, and I was completely in awe of this big spiritual moment, of thousands and thousands of Jews singing and dancing together. I knew I wanted to make a film that captures moments like that—that I hadn’t seen before in cinema.

Why do you think this is one of the first films, entirely in Yiddish, that’s set in the Borough Park Community?

Because it’s impossible to do this. No one who’s intelligent would make a film like this.

Can you expand on that?

First of all, no one would give me money to make this movie because why would you want to make something in Yiddish? No one would want to watch it, and then the second part is that the community is actively against it. All of the rabbis are against films, music, Internet. Only a few dozen people showed up for auditions out of a community of hundreds of thousands of people. And the people who did show up, the community tried to get them to not be in the movie—some of the actors wouldn’t show up and we would lose locations and the producers were pressured by people in the community, so there’s no easy way to do this, and we were fought against the entire way.

As you mentioned, the Hasidic community is unique but also insular and isolated. How did you prepare to present the reality of these characters in an authentic yet sensitive way? How did you prepare for the film?

I took a journalistic perspective, where I spent months just spending time there, writing down moments like a rabbi who keeps the mice away and going to mikvehs with people and having instant coffee at shul or going to a bodega where you can make your own sandwich. With journalistic details, I just spent a lot of time there, and then there’s a lot of experts who are in the community who fact-checked every aspect because this was, really, creative journalism or emotional ethnography. It’s fiction, I mean it’s all made up—everyone’s acting, but the heart of it, the backbone of it, is all based on real things.

The actor who plays Menashe similarly lost custody of his own son. Do you think his personal reality enhanced his acting, especially since he’s not a career actor?

Oh, of course. First of all, he’s a brilliant performer and he definitely brings his own feelings and emotions to it. What I loved about him is that he could always just think about his own life and take that pain and take that drama and put it towards the role, so it was so important to the whole structure.

In the film, Menashe is a widower struggling to gain custody of his son. It seems like we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but then he seems to struggle to take care of himself and his son. What do you want viewers to feel toward Menashe?

I think you said it, that you’re conflicted because, at one point, why shouldn’t Menashe be the custodian of his son? But at the same point, is he capable to be the custodian for his son? And then these people, like the rabbi and the brother-in-law, who, in some ways you could see them as enemies to him, in other ways they are just looking for what’s best for the child. I know that as secular people we assume a parent should be the parent, but is the rabbi and is the brother-in-law—are they really just caring for the son? And whose interests are most important in this matter? So I hope it is conflicting to the viewer and that there’s not an easy answer. I didn’t want to make a film where there are villains. I wanted everyone to have a very nuanced perspective of the dilemma.

There seems to be a lack of women. Was this very intentional?

It was very intentional, and it’s actually easier to get women to act than it is to get men to act. I think there should be more films about women’s perspectives in this community because they have completely different lives than men. But this is a film about one man’s perspective, and if you’re a single man, outside of your customers at the grocery store and your dates you go on, you actually don’t have day-to-day contact with women in your life, so it’s an accurate representation of what a widower would be experiencing.

This community is extremely strict when it comes to technology, art and media. How did the real community itself respond to seeing a film crew?

Do you want to hear a negative story or a funny story?

You choose.

I mentioned people pressured actors not to appear in the movie and pressured our producers, but the thing is, in this community, there’s no positive for being in a film. There’s no real career potential. There’s only negatives where the community can use this against you in numerous ways to pressure you—to lose your job or to make your children have bad matches when they get married, so there’s many ways they could use this against you. But, in other ways, most people didn’t care and, in fact, liked watching us. We’d have huge crowds gathering while we were shooting on the streets and laughing and pointing and gossiping. One of my favorite moments is in the scene where Ruben steps in dog s*** and Menashe tries to comfort him—that’s a nighttime scene. We’re shooting on the street. We have a big crew. We have lights. We have cameras, boom poles and someone walks up to Menashe, while we’re filming, a religious guy, and says ‘Menashe, I have a box. Here, take this box to my cousin’s house in Monsey tomorrow. He needs it’ and Menashe’s like ‘I’m filming right now. You realize you’re just walking right into where the cameras are?’ So in some ways the whole idea of boundaries and giving space for cameras and stuff was not there.

Menashe seems to be against following his rabbi’s orders and finding a new wife. But then at other points he seems very connected to his Jewish community. What went into the process of creating a character who in some ways does and in some ways doesn’t identify with this community?

I wanted to write a character who has a very difficult conflict with this community but then never thought about leaving that community. The idea of leaving the community never entered his head, and that was the case—how he reacts to the drama that unfolded in front of him. Because this is what happens. Most people born in this community have conflicts and yet they choose to stay, and I think that’s a perspective we rarely see in these types of stories.

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