Film review: Fill the void

Directed by Rama Burshtein, Fill the void (2012) offers a striking and dramatic insight into a haredi Jewish family in Israel, a way of life that is often poorly understood and unfairly represented. It charts the tragic death of a pregnant woman, and the turbulent decision that her sister takes to marry the widowed husband and raise the surviving son (Mordechai).

Starring Hadas Yoran (Shira) and Yiftach Klein (Yochai), the intersubjectivity between the two characters unfolds emotionally and delicately to reveal Shira’s decision to marry Yochai out of choice. This follows Rivka Mendelman’s (Shira’s mother) matriarchal attempts to pressure Yochai and Shira into marriage as a way to prevent him moving to Belgium with Mordechai, as well as Shira’s initial reluctance to marry her deceased sister’s husband:

 Rabbi: How does the girl feel about this match?

Shira: It is not a matter of feelings

Rabbi: It is only a matter of feelings

Shira: A deed must be done and I want to do it to everyone’s satisfaction

Perhaps the most beautiful and evocative scene in the 90 minute film is the cycle of death to life seen through the passing of Shira’s sister (Esther) and Mordechai’s Bris Milah (ritual circumcision) on the eighth day. As the male and female mourners sit separately and grieve during the Shiva (seven day mourning period), the baby’s cries pierce the room and remind the family of the life Esther brought into the world. The dialogue during this scene is sensational and draws on socio-religious reflections to comfort the loss of Esther that is so clearly felt by the family whilst the Bris is underway, ‘For it is written, “you shall live through the blood”’.

Of particular significance are the ways in which Burshtein captures the intimate expressions and representations of the community temporally and spatially, as the film captivatingly moves through intense scenes of grieving but also growing romance that does the cast huge justice.

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The film illuminates the importance of marriage in a community such as this, as seen by Shira’s dilemma but also the joy it brings, the difficulties faced by women who marry relatively later and the challenges posed by living with disabilities. Moreover, it captures the religiously inscribed ways in which decisions are understood and made, and how pain is expressed:

‘I haven’t got the strength Father, give me the strength to get up. I can’t go on like this. I can’t do this by myself. Stop me from feeling, Father.  I can’t handle this pain, I’m bursting. Have mercy on me. Let me get up, give me strength’.

The imagery throughout the film is outstanding, no doubt because the director is herself an Orthodox woman. This fact arguably adds to the integrity of the film and its portrayal of a strictly observant way of life; a perspective not always offered by Israeli media outputs.

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Burshtein’s work reinforces the need for academics to engage with, and draw inspiration from, the community issues presented in art and their representations of human experience and means of understanding this phenomena.

Fill the void is available in the UK from 13 December 2013 and comes highly recommended

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