wed 23/04/2014

Unorthodox Jews: The Secret Worlds of Holy Rollers and Eyes Wide Open | Film reviews, news & interviews

Unorthodox Jews: The Secret Worlds of Holy Rollers and Eyes Wide Open

Two new features offer startling, shocking insights into a rarely seen culture

Sexy and dangerous: Zohar Shtrauss (left) and Ran Danker in 'Eyes Wide Open'
Sexy and dangerous: Zohar Shtrauss (left) and Ran Danker in 'Eyes Wide Open'
Jews may or may not have built the pyramids, but we know for certain that they built Hollywood. The names of the men who founded MGM, 20th Century Fox and Paramount speak for themselves: Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B Mayer, Marcus Loew, Joseph Schenck, William Goetz, Adolph Zukor et al. It's no wonder, then, that Hollywood history overflows with Jewish filmmakers, actors and producers. But for all the Spielbergs, Allens, Hoffmans and Weinsteins, one corner of Jewish life has often escaped the cinema: the world of the Orthodox Jew.

Some traditional religious sects such as the Amish in Pennsylvania (the setting for Peter Weir's 1985 film, Witness) separate themselves from society. Orthodox Jews, by contrast, are largely urban. Growing up in Golders Green – northwest London's Orthodox enclave – with a non-practising Jewish mother, I was always fascinated by the black-clad men and bewigged women who walked among us, yet seemed shrouded in mystery. However, this month sees the two films, opening in Britain and the US respectively, that shed a surprising light on the community: Israeli director Haim Tabakman's dramatic debut feature, Eyes Wide Open, and Kevin Asch's American-set thriller Holy Rollers.

It's not that Orthodox Jews haven't ever made it to the screen before. In fact Hollywood's first synchronised talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), follows Al Jolson as he attempts to escape from his stiflingly religious family in New York's Lower East Side to become a Broadway performer. There have even been – in the case of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Yentl (1983) – a couple of Oscar-winning hit musicals, although they were both set in faraway Europe, in the past.

More recently, Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us (1992) was Witness gone kosher: it starred Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, and develops a crush on a handsome Hasid. Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky's claustrophobic thriller Pi (1998) had a gang of maths-wizard Hasidim who are trying to crack a code in the Torah, and Josh Appignanesi's 2005 British indie Song of Songs featured incest, bad lighting and a returned son.

SeriousMan3In many of these films – some of which are very good, some not – Orthodox Judaism is depicted as overpowering, exotic, suffocating, repressive, closed, something to run away from. They are a view from outside, rather than from within. It’s a view that isn’t shared by the Coen brothers’ superb A Serious Man (2009), set in a Reform Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota. The film follows a beleaguered physics professor who is desperate for Rabbinic guidance, but it opens with a blackly comic, folkloric prologue set in an early 20th-century Polish shtetl – an illustration, perhaps, of how Jewish humour and mysticism have changed very little in the move from Orthodox to Reform, Old World to New. (Joel and Ethan Coen are pictured above, second left and second right respectively, with cast members).

Based on a true story, Holy Rollers is set in the late 1990s, when American Hasidic Jews were recruited as drugs mules

What makes Eyes Wide Open and Holy Rollers so interesting is that they are both about contemporary Orthodox Jews doing things which might seem unimaginable to both insiders and outsiders. Eyes Wide Open is a beautifully understated Jerusalem-set drama about a married butcher (Zohar Shtrauss) who falls in love with his attractive, younger male assistant (Ran Danker) – internet buzz has dubbed it "Brokeback Mezuzah". (A Mezuzah is a holy parchment that is traditionally affixed to every doorway in a Jewish household.)

Holy_RollersHoly Rollers, meanwhile, stars Jesse Eisenberg (from Zombieland and The Squid and the Whale) as a young New York Hasid who gets caught up in an international ecstasy-smuggling ring (Eisenberg pictured left). The film is based on events in the late 1990s, when American Hasidic Jews were recruited as mules. It's not the first, nor the last time, that Orthodox Jews have become embroiled in drug smuggling, but to see it depicted in a feature film is certainly new. In other words, and perhaps for the first time, they're seen as sexy, sensual, dangerous and getting in trouble, just like everyone else (Below: Eisenberg in trouble in Holy Rollers.)

Even so, none of the films mentioned here have been made by practising Orthodox Jews, and the actors, too, are generally Reform Jews or non-believers. As Eyes Wide Open's director Haim Tabakman tells me, Orthodox Jews aren't allowed to own televisions or go to the cinema. And while some are making lo-fi films, they're faced with a particularly difficult hurdle. "They are not allowed to show women and men together on the screen," says Tabakman. "So if a woman is making a film, she has to only use women; if men are making a film, they can only use men. You can't even let a women pass in the frame. And of course, if they want to be subversive, they have to be very clever about it."