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"Ushpizin": A Fabulous Fable Comes to Life
by Brandon Judell
As the holiday Succoth nears, the impoverished Hassidim, Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) and his wife Mali (Michal Bat Sheva Rand), don't have much to celebrate. The loving couple has no children. No food except cabbage to nosh on. And, as noted, no Geld, not even enough Shekels to purchase a lemon or the supplies to build a Succah.
What the couple does have in spades is faith, and in this delicious, lovingly comic look at ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, that is more than enough. In Moshe and Mali's world, God will reward those who are true to his teachings.
Written by Rand, himself a Hassid, and directed by Gidi Dar, "Ushpizin" is the first film ever made with the cooperation of ultra-orthodox Jews. One of the compromises the producers had to agree on was that the film would not be screened on Sabbath in Israel. That rule does apply to its American release.
The following is part of a small chat New York Theatre Wire had with the highly vocal, highly enthusiastic Mr. Gar.
GD: Do you know what's happening with the release of "Ushpizin"?
GD: We're being released side by side in certain theaters with "Paradise Now."
BJ: Where's that happening?
GD: At the Lincoln Plaza and at the Sunshine, both of them.
BJ: That's a coincidence. On the other side of this tape that I'm recording you on is an interview with the director of "Paradise Now."
GD: That's really funny.
BJ: I interviewed Hany Abu-Assad yesterday.
GD: In a way, you know our two movies have a very similar subject, although in a very different way . . . . (Interrupting himself, Dar picks up the book I'm carrying, Yosefa Loshitzky's "Identity Politics on the Israeli Screen," and checks the index.) She doesn't have any of my films listed in here.
BJ: It might be an older book.
GD: No, there are films that came out after mine.
BJ: Well, everything is organized into categories. Your films might not fit into her devised sections. The first chapter is on Otto Preminger's "Exodus." How that film influenced Israeli cinema and shaped how the rest of the world looked at Israel.
GD: Are you recording now?
BJ: Yes. Do you want me not to?
GD: No, no problem. I just want to say about the two films that what's interesting is that [Abu-Assad] is dealing with suicide bombers. I haven't seen his film, which I heard was good. I don't know if he's dealing so much with fundamentalist people, although this whole issue of this kind of terrorism begins with fundamentalism. I'm also dealing with fundamentalism in a very different way, but because in my movie . . . The guys in my movie . . . You've seen the movie, right?
DG: They're fundamentalists. They're extreme fundamentalists. But they're not violent. But they are fierce, fierce, fierce believers and very strict believers. And this is like the number one issue in the 21st century. Especially for Americans today.
DG: Fundamentalism in general. It's an internal and external problem for the States. The frontline today of fighting Islam. Also, [the United States are] having internal problems between secular, liberal and fundamentalist religion. And [fundamentalism] is considered by liberals as a bad word. It's sort of like a curse saying "fundamentalist." It's a bad word. That's the enemy.
I feel what we're trying to do in this movie is to cross a border for a second, and leave the conflicts aside, and just address the human side. And by this, saying it can't be that billions and billions of people in the world are bad. Okay. Showing the world through their eyes is important.
BJ: Talking of fundamentalism, Loshitzky notes in her book that the ultra-Orthodox Israeli publication Ha'Modia "compared screening movies in airplanes to the gas chambers because both cause ‘spiritual mass extermination.'"
DG: (Laughs) That's very funny.
BJ: How crazy are these folks to take this stance or is this just the opinion of one individual?
DG: [The Hasidim] are not allowed to go to movies. They don't have TV at home. It's absolutely dead. Okay, now the reason is the First Commandment. The First Commandment says thou shall not do pictures [of God]. Do not say my name in vain and all that. That's about how you approach God. It says, "Don't make pictures of me." Meaning don't make icons. Don't pray to statues. Because at that time everyone prayed to physical images. You had a statue, which was a representative of a god, and you prayed to him.
That's something Judaism goes all the way against. You can't touch him in any way. So since you're not allowed to do this, you are not allowed to anything near it. This ended up so if you take a picture of a Hassidic guy he puts his hat forwards so you won't see his face. Which is a bit like the Indians that you might steal their souls. But actually it's not really written anywhere.
So the rabbi who gave us permission to make this film was very, very brave. He said, "Do it!" He took the risk. "I'm for it. I think you're right. I think this movie will do only good." Especially when he understood my perspective, which was mostly psychological. When I told him I'm not coming in to shake this world. I just want to have a look. A good look. A positive look." When I told him I wanted a psychological perspective, and I was like honest enough to tell him that, that made him trust me. And he went all the way with it.
And finally many saw this film. A big rabbi told Shuli, "This is like a Torah lesson." He said something interesting: "I believe a religious director could not have done this movie because he would end up making propaganda because he couldn't do it any other way. Because if you believe, then you have to convince everybody else." It's like writing a commandment. You can't go against it.
But for me, of course, that's not what I was trying to do. I was more into the questioning. But not questioning in the normal way. Questioning by the very fact that I take you through the script. You experience it. You don't talk about it; you go through it.
Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005
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