‘Menashe’: Director Joshua Weinstein on His Quiet Drama [Interview]


Original interview can be found HERE

You have never seen a movie quite like Joshua Weinstein‘s “Menashe.” The film was shot by Weinstein on a low-budget, in near cinema-verite style, deep in the heart of New York City’s Hasidic community, and it’s presented in Yiddish with English subtitles. Talk about a gamble even for an indie production.
The film chronicles the trials and tribulations of recently widowed Hasidic Jew Menashe (Menashe Lustig in his big-screen debut) whose community forces his son to be raised by his openly contemptuous brother in-law. To get his son back, he will have to marry again, but Menashe isn’t ready for commitment. His first marriage was an unhappy union, and he is less than eager to rush into another matrimonial endeavor. To make matters worse, he must also find stability, which cannot happen with his low-paying, labor-intensive gig at a Jewish bakery. His sole raison d’etre is his son and yet orthodox rule forbids them from living in the same house until he finds a wife. Menashe’s endeavor to regain custody of his son is at the heart of the film’s narrative. This is a quiet drama that stitches together an ordinary life faced with impossibly tasked religious restrictions, yet Menashe persists.
“Menashe” is a slice of an America that you’ve rarely seen before on screen, a world that largely remains from the mainstream, but to which Weinstein shows us a bird’s eye view of here. I spoke to Weinstein and Lustig about their movie and how they made the impossible a reality by working with a cast of mostly non-professionals, and an orthodox community that forbids moviemaking.
How did this project happen? This movie is truly one a kind.
Joshua Weinstein: It was the first time Menashe was in a movie theater.
Oh, how was that like?
Menashe Lustig: It was incredible. It was the first time I had a response from people.
JW: He didn’t really know what the movie was about until he saw it with an audience.
What are your thoughts on the movie?
ML: I was used to watch things on YouTube. When you watch it in a theater it’s quite different, it takes you away from reality.
JW: Quite literally the odds of this happening were almost impossible. Watching this film is like one unique snowflake gradually coming together by the atmosphere. There were so many moments where the film was close to collapsing. We lost locations, we lost actors, funding…Nobody wanted us to make this movie. Many in the Jewish Orthodox world felt that even if I was respectful, just Menashe staying in front of the camera was too much and breaking too many rules.
What I love is that it’s all in Yiddish. It’s a dying language.
JW: Of course it is.
ML: We actually talk in the movie a very peculiar New York Yiddish. It’s a mix of English and Yiddish. It’s not completely authentic Yiddish. It’s 2017 Yiddish [laughs].
JW: My goal wasn’t to do the impossible and save the language, but if it does save the language that’s wonderful, but there are hundreds of thousands of people in New York City who speak Yiddish so to a large segment of the population it’s not dying at all, it’s thriving. You know there’s also this deep history of Yiddish cinema, pre-second world war. Post-war Hebrew became the de facto language of the Jews and you do have these brilliant Israeli movies that are released every year, but it’s very sad, for the new generation, that brilliant songs, poems, plays, movies that were made in this language are now no more.
There was a similarly-themed movie from Montreal named “Felix and Meira,” nominated for a Best Foreign Language Fim Oscar. Did you see it?
JW: Yeah, we use some of the same cast and crew. I actually don’t like that movie. With many of these Jewish Orthodox movies, it’s always about people trying to leave. That’s always the idea, “I don’t want to be ultra orthodox anymore.” So, I wanted to tell a story where the idea of leaving is not even a thought. That’s how these people live and so that’s how I wanted to tell the story.
That’s what I love about “Menashe.” It feels more like a slice of slice than any indictment of the society depicted. How was it casting this movie?
JW: We went out in the streets wearing Yamaka and white shirts, spoke to people. Those who would agree to have an audition would sometimes not show and, if they did show up, many would be awful. The people that did pass the casting all had their own unique quirks that we inserted into the storyline, so we let them be themselves. Every personality we cast I would change the script to fit them because we had to do it and I designed the film for those actors to be great.
That’s what it looks like when you watch the movie. The actors are basically playing themselves. How was it taking the lead role in your acting debut?
ML: For me, because I was in the Yiddish community acting world, it was easier, but he also matched the story with my own. I felt bad trying to act-out the anxieties of my own life, but, yeah, while we were shooting I didn’t really know how this or that scene could fit into an actual movie, but Joshua kept telling me, “Trust me, we will put all of this together.” The other actors also were trying to take over the movie with their own opinions of how the movie should be.
JW: When you have a few Jews in a room you will have many opinions of how certain things should be done [laughs] .
ML: He had a vision in his head of how it would all look like as a finished product, but I didn’t get it, especially the street actors, they didn’t understand why Josh kept telling them to just walk down the streets.” Aren’t we supposed to be acting?” [laughs]
JW: Back to “Felix and Meira,” why would people decide to stay in a society unless they got something out of it. The reality of it is that Hasidic people are hysterical, you don’t know how many times I’d hang out with them and they’d make me laugh and fall over.
ML: You know, not even National Geographic could make as authentic a portrayal of Hasidic life as Joshua as done here. “Felix and Meira” was not realistic, Joshua wanted to deliver the facts as they were.
JW: I just wanted to capture moments that we have never seen in cinema. A world that has never been onscreen before. What interests me when I make a movie is to show something that has never been seen before, that was what fascinated me about making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a society where a rabbi dictates what the norms are, but I did want to show the complexities, difficulties, and challenges of that.
“Menashe” now playing in limited release now.
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