FILL THE VOID written and directed by Rama Burshtein, a native New Yorker who joined the world of the Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, gives us an intimate glimpse into this Ultra-Orthodox sub-culture in Israel – replete with beautifully composed close up images of their rituals, and codified religious laws, and the workings of the councils whose power over the lives of the community, particularly women is despairingly restrictive.
Girls from a young age are encouraged to get married and stay at home to procreate and raise children, as well as organizing and maintaining their households. The Rabbinical decisions in the “arrangement” of marriages, the “charitable” doling out of money, the resolutions of domestic and business conflicts, as well as the necessity of women to wear head coverings, etc. are similar to other Middle Eastern Fundamentalist cultures. The Hassidic men celebrate pivotal occasions, drinking wine and singing together– haunting mournful chants along with lively, uplifting melodies - while the women are sitting in a group, segregated, serving the food and cleaning up after them. Despite the realization that many women do have a commanding voice in the confines of their homes, I could barely contain my rage.
FILL THE VOID deals with the youthful anticipation of romantic love vs. a young woman’s feelings of (what can only be termed) “biblical” duty. We are privy to the negotiations that are employed in “arranged marriages”. Elders meet with the respective parents and determine financial dispositions, and the couples in question face each other to assess their compatibility for minutes, or (if they are lucky) up to a few hours– each one has a veto power; both can reject the choices that have been made for them, but that too has consequences.
The film’s opening shot zooms in on a lovely18 year-old girl/woman, Shira (Hada Yaron) racing to embrace her exquisite 28 year old, very pregnant sister Esther (Renana Raz) who arrives with her husband for the Purim Holiday festivities. Unexpectedly this celebration turns into a tragic event, when Esther gives birth to a baby boy and dies in childbirth. Shortly after Esther’s death, her grieving husband a handsome Yochay Goldberg (Yiftach Klein) is encouraged by the powers-that–be to remarry in order to have a wife assist in raising the newborn child. When it is decided that he will be betrothed to a Belgium woman and leave Israel, the infant’s grandmother Rivka (Irith Sheleg,) Esther and Shira’s mother, is heartbroken and feels the best solution to keeping her grandchild in Israel, would be to devise a union between her tender-hearted, sensitive daughter Shira and the older widower.
The film focuses on Shira’s emotionally complicated response to marrying her ex-brother-in-law, and the feeling of responsibility to the newborn child and her parents wishes. I felt that those around this innocent young woman were selfishly heedless to the fact that Shira was in deep mourning for the anguished loss of her adored sister - an event that created an unspeakable “void” in her life. The ensuing depth of her bereavement is one that cannot be filled – the interchangeability of relationships is a complex question. I am not sure of the answer.