Anat Yuta Zuria has created a trilogy of films exploring the lives of women in the context of Halakhah (Jewish religious law) and the religious community in Israel: Purity (Tehora 2002), Sentenced to Marriage (Mekudeshet 2004), and the most recent, Black Bus (Soreret 2009), which will be shown at the Jerusalem Theatre on Monday, March 8, International Women’s Day. Midnight East’s Ayelet Dekel spoke to the filmmaker, who reflected on this body of work, its origins, processes and vision.
Anat Zuria: As a filmmaker I developed an individual identity with a subversive approach. This subject [family purity laws as shown in the film Purity] is not at all represented in the secular social discourse [in Israel]. In the religious world there was an engaged ideological discourse, there was no plurality of voices, no representation of differing opinions, like in a communist regime.
I came to this topic through my personal life. I was raised in an apikorus family, secular with a typical Israeli background. Immigrants who adopted an Israeli identity developed through excluding the Diaspora and Ashkenazi background they came from. It is characteristic of the Ashkenazi story in Israel. My mother is from a German background – they were completely alienated from Judaism, hardcore assimilators.
It was perhaps rebellion, perhaps a kind of search, I don’t know what… I was always interested in the East, and view Judaism as relating to the East. I married an Orthodox religious Jew and I began to lead a life connected to the Orthodox way of life. My experiences were those of a person with a dual perspective because I was never a classic believer (hozeret be’tshuva). I didn’t have an Orthodox consciousness, but my lived experience was that of an Orthodox Jew with an outsider’s perspective.
There are things that I loved very much – the idea that ethical existence is connected to a kind of action. It interested me from a theoretical perspective that not only words have power but that action also has power. I loved the Shabbat, the quiet; it was a very strong experience for me.
I was never a classic believer, because the language of the Halakhah was not acceptable to me. The idea behind the Halakhah, behind every religious law is that there is a revelation of divine presence that can manifest in human law. I rejected this idea. Mine is a cultural stance, not religious.
[When working on the movie] Purity – I took everything that could be connected to ritual – relating to the body, representation of the body, the laws. I adopted the perspective of a complete outsider, who didn’t understand anything. I investigated everything; it was a crazy research process. The search was so broad – it involved balaniyot (women guides in the mikveh), women who had different experiences, women of different ages because I was interested in how their perspective changes, rabbis, the mikvaot, who designs them, who teaches brides, who is the mediator who explains to a bride what she needs to do, what is her body, sexual relations, the male perspective, the texts themselves… I did research for almost two years to build a world. It’s a complex ritual and realm. Do you know how many doctors I spoke to? I knew about the topic of Hakakhic infertility…it is barely recognized in Israeli culture, it doesn’t reach the mainstream.
My films exist on the margins – it’s the testimony of people who are on the margins of the community. The mainstream will do everything to reject this testimony, to push this voice off the stage. They would not let a religious young woman in high school see a movie like this [Purity], or be exposed to other texts that describe this story. She will learn about Halakhic infertility only if she conducts her own independent research.
The menstrual cycle is non-existent in Western culture. Is that good or bad? Judaism says it’s impurity, and you have to go through a process to become pure. It is invisible in Western culture, but all women live it. It’s part of their lives and is either non-existent or ridiculous but there is no realistic description, there is no realism.
Realism is something that I love. It brings humor, it brings complexity. To this day the movie has remained subversive to a certain extent, which is why it has not been adopted as a movie that everyone sees. It’s not a mainstream movie. Sentenced to Marriage has had more exposure.
Purity is an important movie in my eyes. It had a lot of influence on religious community because it opened the discourse. It was like opening Pandora’s Box. It’s something of immense proportions in its meaning for a religious woman. It built their body image, sexuality, it built her social standing because a menstruating woman cannot hold the Torah, and she is rejected and cannot be touched.
Ayelet Dekel: Although the Torah cannot become impure.
Anat Zuria: Superstitions… It is not just the story of Jewish law – it’s the world of these concepts. Once you accept these concepts…They are very strong concepts, impurity is not a casual thing.
Ayelet Dekel: It is interesting that these women were willing to be so exposed.
Anat Zuria: That is due to the depth of the research. Participants have to be women with a high level of awareness to what we are doing, to be capable of making a decision knowing that the price they have to pay will be heavy. These are subjects that are taboo. I tried to explain to the women that it will be a difficult journey, it’s not fun, and it’s not like being in a fun movie. They will be judged, people will be angry with them.
The community was very angry with one of the participants in Purity. I don’t think she understood how hard it would be. The society keeps a tight lid on everyone. She is a heroine. Tamar received her divorce as a result of the movie Sentenced to Marriage [as described in an interview from Makor Rishon].
Each movie demanded a lot of patience, very complex work building the story decisions – for example in Sentenced to Marriage – the scene in the rabbinic court was very difficult to construct. How do I describe this scene? There is a movie, a documentary, about divorce in Iran. There the court gave a British director complete access to the court. I didn’t get access.
Ayelet Dekel: How did you get those scenes? How?!!
Anat Zuria [laughs]: How? I’ll tell you the truth…I simply decided…they didn’t give me access to the sessions themselves, but they did give me access to the corridors and then I simply made use of interesting technology to record. It was, like, forbidden but I thought it was important enough in terms of the public’s right to know how things take place there. It’s important to know that many things were not said there [in the movie]. There were things done by the rabbis that we could not include… shocking behavior.
I was afraid for the women. The legal process is so complex… how women buy the get is very complex and there were things in this process that I gave up on representing although they were so cruel. It’s not democratic, completely dictatorial, it’s inhuman.
It’s the least Jewish imaginable – to abuse the weak. In this case its women and children who are weakened by the law. The State of Israel has instated a law that is entirely anti-democratic. It’s not Jewish law; it’s a very extreme religious interpretation that does not recognize democratic values.
Why don’t people make movies about this? Making a movie like this is a struggle.
It demands courage and the will to survive. I hope more people will want to take it on.
I wanted it [the movie] to be like a swallow that heralds the spring and that more people will take on the subject. It needs to be documented, discussed, this reality needs to be described, talked about.
My film is the tip of the iceberg it’s a minor movie that describes certain aspects of this topic and doesn’t presume to represent the full story.
Ayelet Dekel: Black Bus ventures into different terrain, looking at women who have left the Haredi world.
Anat Zuria: But did you see how they are still stuck within it? I looked for rebellious women. Women in the Haredi world don’t have the right to freedom of expression. They are afraid, as if they were in the darkest of Communist regimes. They are collaborators…they idealize it or rationalize it – or they love it, it doesn’t matter how you interpret it …someone asked me why don’t I document women who are flourishing in this community? I said it reminds me of a story regarding British Colonial era when there was the custom of burning widows in India. A governor tried to stop the custom but met with cultural strong resistance. 250 women came to him saying we want to be burned. He said to the local leaders – who, in the context of multiculturalism, claimed – this is our custom, our culture. Ok. You come from a culture that burns women. You burn the women and I’ll burn the person who is burning the women.
In a democratic country, with all the respect to this culture, we also have something to say about a situation in which there is no equality, women don’t have any rights to their body, to education, freedom of expression, they can’t be equal in any area. There has to be the possibility of giving these women rights. Just like these women vote – at the time Rav Kook didn’t want them to have the right to vote. They should be compelled to allow women to be selected as judges (dayanyot in the religious court), part of the political leadership. You can’t just exclude women in the name of something.
For the movie Black Bus, I looked for women who are rebelling and that are like us, dealing with documentation. In a way the movie is about me, about women who are involved in documentation and are looking at this world with an outsider/insider perspective.
It’s a movie that intends to discuss the multicultural interpretation. I disagree with the interpretation of multiculturalism in Israel. I think that in this case it allows the oppression of women and that you do not allow the erasure of the other in the name of multiculturalism that pretends to acknowledge the other.
What are your limits? If you say I want to recognize someone else’s culture, but by doing so you are erasing the rights of someone else, and that someone else is for some reason always women, I say let’s examine the limits. In the Haredi community people are always speaking for the women. People ask me: Why do you say that? Why don’t you see the shades of difference? I tell them – why do you speak in one voice – we the Charedim demand…but it’s always just men who are speaking. Bring the women, let’s hear them.
I think it’s a daring movie because it protests against what I think will be one of the major problems of the State of Israel – its democratic character. Today one fourth of the first graders in the country are Haredim, tomorrow it will be 50%. So that’s it? That is the end of democratic values in Israel? It is a matter of obliterating our democratic identity. It is a movie that deals with our future…will we remain a democratic country? It’s already in my opinion a partial theocracy. If we get rid of the occupation our situation will improve in terms of democracy. It’s not at all obvious to me that in another twenty years this will be a democratic country.
The Israeli secular democrat thinks that the solution to the Haredi story – if they isolate themselves and use force and political power – ok, they will live in their ghetto and we’ll divide the country into separate states and that’s it. But it’s a kind of illusion.
The solution in a Democratic state is first of all, awareness and discourse as a beginning– to confront the situation. From a political perspective – there needs to be a life of equality for all, separating religion and the state, creating basic legislature. These tasks appear impossible to Israelis. That is why these movies exist on the margins of society.
Ayelet Dekel: How did you find the women featured in Black Bus?
Anat Zuria: It was a long obsessive obstinate research process. I found a young Haredi man… you reach the people whom you ask the right questions. At first I didn’t know how to ask or what to ask. By then I knew what I wanted. I said: I am looking for rebellious girls (sorerot) where are they? Where are the bad girls? It sounds funny, but where are the others? What – are they all good girls? Where are the bad girls? He said – on the internet.
If a Haredi woman deviates from the norm she will be ostracized. In order to understand the buses I explored the topic from many different directions and I discovered something I had not known. Today among Hasidim there is a cultural Halakha that it’s not modest to obtain a driver’s license and women don’t drive. It’s horrifying! With so many children that is such a punishment! I interviewed Hasidic women learned to drive and paid a terrible price for it. One was divorced; one was ostracized by her family.
Why does this happen? I don’t have an explanation. There is a lot of extremism.
The leaders will lose a lot of power if the internet use spreads. They are threatened by post-modern existence.
In making Black Bus there were decisions regarding what to include and film.
The act of taking pictures and wandering is the content of the film. You will notice that Sara spoke, Shulamit hardly spoke.
From the outset I dealt with taboo subject matter. There are interdictions – most of the knowledge is hidden from you. You can’t say everything. With all these obstacles, how do you tell a story? It’s very hard, challenging, filmmaking. Black Bus does not have a linear narrative; it’s a world of associations. If you enter that world, you can emerge at the end of the journey with the feeling of a powerful experience.
The direction of my filmmaking is more Asian. There is a difference between Western literature that deals in description and Eastern literature – the difference between the world of the Bible and the world of the Odyssey. There are two languages: description and action. Haiku is about action. In Western literature there is imagery, Haiku does not have imagery. I am influenced by both cultures.
Soreret (Black Bus), a film by Anat Yuta Zuria
80 minutes, Hebrew with English subtitles
Rebecca Crown Hall, Jerusalem Theatre at 20:30
20 Marcus Street, Jerusalem