New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series Read More
Part 5: Discussion with Emily Cheeger, director of “Holy Woman” (2020)
Presented virtually by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, the 2021 New York Jewish Film Festival offers a selection of films from around the world that explore the Jewish experience. This year’s program of shorts features works by directors Harvey Wang, Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, Dhimitër Ismailaj-Valona, Emily Cheeger, and Arkadij Khaet & Mickey Paatzsch. The Jewish Museum caught up with each filmmaker for a brief Q&A.
Emily Cheeger, 2020, USA, 20m
Yiddish with English subtitles
The Jewish Museum: Holy Woman is the result of years of you have spent writing stories about the Hasidic world in Borough Park, Brooklyn, but I understand that you are not from an ultra-Orthodox household yourself. How did you get involved in this community?
Emily Cheeger: In 2013, I moved to New York City to attend the NYU Graduate Film Program. I lived in Brooklyn, where I soon became starkly aware of the deep cultural rift that existed between my neighborhood, Greenpoint, just north of Williamsburg, and the Hasidic community only a few blocks away.
One night after a film shoot, I encountered a stranger who asked for directions to a bar. He had clearly escaped his Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg for a few hours, and our ensuing conversation turned out to be a portentous crossroads for me. I felt a deep need to understand this person and the world he came from. I could tell he was running away from something, but I had no idea what. I wanted to know.
I went home and googled “rebel Hasidim” and fell down a rabbit hole. I discovered a whole new world where integrity and personal freedom were questions of life and death. I decided that I wanted to write screenplays about people such as the person I had just encountered and would never see again. I also knew that in order to do so effectively, I would need to spend years learning about the community, the culture, the language, and the experiences of the people therein. It was a huge commitment, but I pursued it. So, I spent the next several years doing everything I could as an outsider to get to know the community better. I corresponded with people at first, semi-anonymously, and within about a year, started to get to know people in person, particularly those on the fringes of the community. They became some of my closest friends — and many of them still are.
JM: The film is entirely in Yiddish. Did you work exclusively with actors who grew up speaking the language?
EC: Yes, almost exclusively. It was really important to me to cast people who grew up in the culture, speaking the language and wearing the clothing, so that they could make up for any gaps in my knowledge. There are so many nuances to Hasidic culture that the accent with which you speak can vary even from block to block within a neighborhood. So can the details in your garb or head covering.
I also really wanted my actors to be already intimately familiar with the customs, prayers, and the body language that the characters would have, without my having to instruct them. As an outsider, I was committed to bringing in people who would help me to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of films have been made in pseudo-Hasidic settings and the lack of attention to detail in those films always felt exploitative to me. Over the years, I have worked to build the capacity to tell these stories as authentically as I can.
JM: You’ve said that one motivation for making Holy Woman is that you find representations of Hasidic culture in film and media to be overly monolithic or reductive. With that in mind, what were some of your goals with this particular film, narrative or otherwise?
EC: It boils down to me wanting to be a worthy mouthpiece for the stories of these people that I have been so involved with over the years. The goal of any good film is to create deeper compassion for humanity; to spend time in another’s shoes; to communicate something truthful. The twist is that after writing a whole feature script that was dogmatically realistic, I decided to tell a shorter story that could be truthful in its essence, while also being fantastical.
JM: Once the protagonist Neshama begins her mystical transformation, she is caught in a bind: she presents as both a man and a woman, but she lives in a conservative society that makes this seemingly impossible (her husband even refers to her, quite cruelly, as a “mixed up mish-mash of a creature”). I wonder if there are discussions about feminism and gender in Jewish Orthodoxy — whether more theoretical, or anecdotal — that have influenced you.
EC: There are a lot of religious legal traditions and paradoxes that influenced the development of Holy Woman, as well as some more personal spiritual questions I was interested in about the nature of the soul, identity, and consciousness. One of the core Talmudic concepts of the story is that of kol isha b’erva — the nakedness of a woman’s voice. This notion dictates that the singing voice of a woman, heard in public, is the equivalent of seeing her naked. It is unchaste, unseemly, perhaps even obscene.
In the Hasidic community, where the singing voices of men are ubiquitous, dominant, exalted, and inescapable, this double standard is heightened. As such, the female voice is a powerful tool and metaphor through which to explore integrity and identity in the Hasidic world. As a singer myself, one of the hardest things for me to reconcile with Orthodox law is the conflict I felt around this concept. But I was more interested in asking questions than offering answers.
JM: Could you talk about the role of humor as a device in your storytelling process?
EC: I think humor is a great way to talk about difficult things in a way that makes them approachable. Humor is also a huge part of Jewish culture — whether you grow up secular or religious — so it was an instinctive choice. It’s a great unifier, and an inextricable element of satire, which plays a big role in this film, which I think of as an affectionate satire. Aside from that, I’m also deeply influenced by the Modernist humor of authors such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gary Shteyngart and there’s a long tradition of magical realist satire in the Judeo-Slavic diaspora. It must be in my blood.
Emily Cheeger is the director of Holy Woman. This year’s program of shorts is available Jan. 20 at noon ET to Jan. 23 at noon ET: Get Tickets
— Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant, the Jewish Museum
New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.