Black Bus (Hebrew title: Soreret), a documentary produced and directed by Anat Yuta Zuria, will have its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), taking place from February 11 – 21. Third in a trilogy concerned with the relationship of women to Jewish religious law (Halakha), the film observes that which remains hidden from view – the lives of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women. Black Bus takes a route marked by images and associations, rather than linear narrative, viewing this world from the perspective of its two protagonists: women who have left the Ultra-Orthodox community – a blogger and a photographer. Scenes from their lives are like stops along the way, set against the background of the ongoing debate in Israel over the issue of sex-segregated buses.
The movie will be shown as part of the Forum, a program in the festival dedicated to presenting controversial and experimental films, under the direction of Christoph Terhechte. Any documentary on the ultra-orthodox community is subversive in its essence, for it is a community that does not wish to be observed. It is difficult to gain access to this world in which every aspect of life is determined by Halakha and the adjudication of Rabbis; access, not only in the literal sense, but also in terms of comprehending its system of rules, values and symbols. The Hebrew title – Soreret – reflects the relationship to this code, and resonates strongly in the context of Jewish tradition. It means “disobedient woman” and disobedience, in a culture founded on obeying commandments, is a serious matter.
The act of observing is one of the film’s many themes as it documents Sarah and Shulamit observing the world they left, and each woman observing herself. In the case of Shulamit, the viewer literally sees through her eyes as her photographs are interwoven throughout. To a certain extent, the non-narrative structure acknowledges the difficulty involved in understanding the experience of another. There is a tension between the desire to know and reveal, and respect for the privacy of the individual. The camera is there to witness, yet the gaps in the narrative indicate a sense of restraint which heightens the awareness that this is a society where being observed has consequences.
The religious laws of Judaism rely on the interpretation of text through rabbinic authority, a process which encompasses a great potential for change and flexibility, yet may also work in the opposite direction, emphasizing conservatism and rigidity. A recent trend in interpretation has been to elevate the concept of “modesty,” one expression of which can be found in the sex-segregated buses. In order to avoid all possibility of immodest contact between men and women, women must enter the bus from the back door and remain at the back of the bus. These buses have been the source of agitation and debate, calling into question the interpretation of respect for differing norms and values within the public domain in a democracy. The Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) petitioned the High Court of Justice to shut down these lines, which are operated by publicly owned bus companies. The most recent development in this debate has been the Transportation Minister Israel Katz’s recommendation to the High Court that the State allow “voluntary” segregation, meaning that the passengers on certain bus lines agree to maintain the existing separation, but cannot be obliged to do so.
Yet in a society where modesty is the operating imperative and any criticism can be construed as “immodest”, the meaning of the words “agree” and “voluntary” is put in question. The film itself has generated considerable discourse in Israel; a quick internet search reveals several articles and forum discussions (in Hebrew). One author, Rivka Schwartz, criticizes, among other issues, what she describes as Sarah’s misrepresentation of Ultra-Orthodox women as “leading lives of misery.” Yet it is interesting to note that despite her criticism, Schwartz writes: “Don’t misunderstand me, I certainly understand what led you to leave all that, I know that it was hard for you, I know the rigid rules that you describe in one of your writings and I am shocked by them as is every other woman that I have ever met…[my translation from the Hebrew].” Schwartz’s article appeared on an Ultra-Orthodox website, Haredim, which shut down, voluntarily, on December 18, 2009, in response to the request of Rabbis.
Black Bus won the award for Best Documentary at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2009. Zuria’s previous films are: Purity (2002), which won the Mayor’s Award for Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and Sentenced to Marriage (2004) which won the Wolgin Award for Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Screenings in Israel: March 8 at 20:30
Jerusalem Theatre, 20 Marcus St, Jerusalem, 02-5605757
Berlin International Film Festival
February 13 at 19:30 CinemaxS 4
February 15 at 12:30 Cubix 7
February 16 at 22:45 Kino Arsenal
Production: Anat Yuta Zuria, Jerusalem
Screenplay: Anat Yuta Zuria
Camera: Roni Katzenelson
Format: DigiBeta (filmed on DV), color and black-and-white
Running time: 76 min.
Language: Hebrew with English subtitles