Interview: Director and Star of the Bittersweet Yiddish Language Film “Menashe”
It’s somewhere between a Yiddish language “Kramer vs. Kramer” and a modern day “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Menashe” is the first movie ever to be filmed in the very private, insular world of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn. Geographically, it takes place in Brooklyn, but culturally it is closer to the shtetls of early 20th century Eastern Europe in many ways than to the hipster Brooklyn of artisanal pickles and man buns.
The movie tells the story of a gentle grocery clerk named Menashe, recently widowed, who is trying to stay close to his young son, while the rules of the community require the boy to live with his uncle’s family until his father remarries. It is very loosely based on the real life of its star, also named Menashe (who tells me he is looking for a wife, in case you know anyone). He is a Hasid, but he is also a part-time comedian who can be seen in YouTube videos. It was a great pleasure to join the real-life Menashe Lustig and co-writer/director Joshua Z. Weinstein at Washington D.C.’s Jewish Community Center to talk about making the film.
This is your first scripted film after several documentaries. What did you learn from making documentaries that you brought to “Menashe?”
JW: For me, filmmaking is not about plot; it’s about moments. I wanted to capture these big communal celebrations. People want drama in their lives and religion gives it to them in many ways. When you see a thousand people get together to dance, to sing, to celebrate I just knew that there is something beautiful and magical and never before seen in cinema and that’s what inspired me to make this movie.
How did you meet Menashe?
JW: I would just go out into the world with a pad and paper and chill out with people and drink tea and drink tea and go to minyans and mikvahs and really just get to know people. I met one producer named Daniel Finkelman. He makes religious music videos for the Hasidic community. They are on YouTube and they have millions of views and one of them was his brother-in-law named Lipa Schmeltzer, who is the Hasidic Lady Gaga and makes over-the-top pop songs. One is called “Hang Up The Phone” about how cell phones are bad for our community and we should be present with each other, so they’re pretty universal. I went to a shoot with Lipa and Menashe was there.
I love people who are slightly damaged. There is something about them — obviously beauty is important but damage is fascinating and it teaches us something. Menashe had incredible comedic timing but also these really tragic sad eyes that were so expressive. I was captivated by him and I just knew that he could hold the movie together.
ML: A scar is like a medal of braveness. When you see that, you know that he has a past and a story.
JW: And everyone in this film is incredible actor. What I loved about them is that everyone had their own tics, their own specifics, their own things that literally no Hollywood actor could ever emulate or even attempt to emulate. Each one of their faces is unique and so special that the film could not have been made any other way. People who watch the movie this are just going to be struck like, “Wow, we are really observers like we’re flies on the wall and we’re seeing things no one outside that community has seen before.”
But at the same point people will have no idea how hard it was for us to make it feel like it was just captured. This film took us over year to make because every scene that usually in Hollywood could be shot in half a day would take us days of prep. I wanted to make sure to shoot in real locations. I wanted to make sure that actors were real. There were no fake beards in the movie. And I do not speak Yiddish. So with all the translating going back and forth there were Talmudic debates about the language because if you live in Williamsburg or if your parents are from Ukraine you have different words for different things. We spent a year getting permission to shoot in a real mikvah. And for the scenes in the store we shot in four different stores. We had one very emotional scene we were shooting on the street and Menashe was really showing us what the character was feeling and then a friend of his happened to walk by and stopped to talk to him, to ask him to deliver a box to someone — while we were in the middle of a scene.
Menashe, did you create your own dialogue?
ML: Yes, Joshua never told you what would be the next thing. He just told me about the subject, what it is. We put in pieces and pieces and pieces. I never know what he will do today.
JW: Musa Syeed and I wrote a thirty page document which had the emotional beats in order so that was the blueprint for the movie. I told him what the point of the scene was and what had to be done. Menashe and Ruben Niborski, who plays his son, were really brilliant at improving those moments. Other actors didn’t have just that natural ability to improv so for those scenes we ended up having to write dialogue for them.
I think this goes to this deep human yearning that connects when you express yourself because in this community people do not take artistic talent seriously. And so many people that have the talent and want to share themselves and they are never given an opportunity. So even if you’re an old man or a young boy people just want to share and want to be creative and want to be appreciated for that. So I think that universal concept just resonated with everyone involved in the movie.
What do you want audiences to know about this film?
JW: This film was never made with religious dogma. It is really humanistic, even anthropological look at the community. I just love stories that are complex. That is how reality is; there are no villains in real life. It’s just shades of gray. I wanted us to understand every character in this movie, who they were, to humanize them. In reality when you see something evil, no one is completely evil and no one is completely good. This film was just about those shades of gray that make up our everyday life and that fabric and I think that fabric is very universal here. One of our co-writers is Muslim and we had a Palestinian on our set too, we had black people and white people, you know what I’m saying? For me as an artist obviously you can’t say the word color-blind but obviously I work with everyone and everyone contributes. Religion does not get in the way of humanity and that’s what our goals were.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 30, 2017.