Modest Ways to Tell Touching Stories

This is a film review that looks at the craft techniques in Fill the Void (2012) and The Wedding (2016) by American screenwriter and director Rama Burshtein. Burshtein was born in New York City; she now lives in Israel.

If you can, before reading this feature I would recommend you read an online synopsis of each film and view the trailers (see below for links). Both films are also available on demand either on Amazon or youtube.com.

The first-time view of Burshtein’s Israeli dramas Fill the Void and The Wedding will provide a story writer and aspiring screenwriter and director with an abundance of worthy and inspiring craft insights. These can be reconfigured and invested in your own unique way into your own literary and film work.

Firstly, I want to say I found both films outstanding in craftsmanship and realization. I would award both films a top rating of ten out of ten for:

  1. Original, enlightening and compelling script.
  2. Creative and fresh approach to visual and audio storytelling.
  3. Engaging visual and audio representation of characters enduring tragedy, conflict, and triumph in the midst of community life.
  4. The effective use of empathy.
  5. The effective use of close-up techniques to focus on defining moments and details to support character portrayal and actualization.
  6. The excellent use of place and space, and rhythm, and pace.
  7. Realist character portrayal and development.
  8. An effective interaction between dramatic action in the main plot line and subplots.
  9. Both films were, ‘A good drama [that] takes us deeper and deeper to a resolution that is both surprising and inevitable,’ which is an applicable description from David Mamet’s book On Directing Film (1991, Penguin, New York).
  10. In the most respectful and authentic manner, both films offered intimate portrayals of the sensibilities of Orthodox religious community life and religious individuals in their home environment.
  11. I am adding one extra merit point for good measure; both films were well-cast; and the acting was authentic and well-directed.

I will now refer to some of these comments in relation to where they are relevant in each film and raise some new points.

Fill the Void combines tragedy and drama in an intimate portrait of Israeli Chassidic family life. We learn, in a modest and carefully-paced manner, what happens after a daughter dies in childbirth and her sister is offered her brother-in-law as a shidduch (an arranged marriage partner). In the shadow of her sister’s death, we witness how 18-year old Shira navigates conflict and choice in the face of an unconventional marriage proposal that takes time to mature and come to fruition.

Screenwriter and director David Mamet’s definition of good drama seems fitting to repeat: ‘A good drama takes us deeper and deeper to a resolution that is both surprising and inevitable,’

Fill the Void is a unique story told with minimal cliché.  Firstly, Burshtein places Shira in her Chassidic world, in a life that could be classed as predictable with demands and expectations that accompany a family whose world is directed by a Rebbe (a spiritual leader) and adheres to all the customs, rituals and laws of a strictly Orthodox Jewish family. Yet, within Shira’s ordinary life the unexpected manifests with inevitable yet singular results.

What makes Fill the Void compelling is Burshtein’s intimate storytelling of a misunderstood world that is cloaked in modesty and privacy. Burshtein portrays need and desire with grace, sensitivity, and authenticity. Not only did I feel I inhabited the mind and felt the heart beat and needs of Shira, I felt present and in sympathy with both the men and the women in Shira’s story.

While Burshtein creates a religious world in each film with a protagonist with particular requirements, needs, and desires that are facing a particular challenge both stories could resonate with any person of any faith and background.  Burshtein’s work draws on universal themes that include among many happiness, loss, and desire without compromising the values of the Orthodox religious world.

Yet, Burshtein is not verbose; she is an economic storyteller. Her approach in Fill the Void, is less is more in the verbal department; and only words that matter. In The Wedding, conversation, banter, and comedy are used liberally.

From a human consciousness perspective, as close as Burshtein can take you into the character’s psyche she will be lead you not only in words, sounds and images but in the silence, in what is not said; in the space between words. Burshtein is not afraid to give us silence or instrumental music which assumes the character’s voice in a musical language of the heart, soul, body and the mind. A language every man could comprehend and appreciate.

While the protagonist is the central figure in each film, Shira in Fill the Void and Michal in The Wedding, all the characters that orbit around each single girl in her quest for marriage are significant and make a valid contribution.

Fill the Void is like an emotive and sweet symphony played in slow motion. There are highs and lows with close attention to particular movements; deeply mindful moments of contemplation or fiery responses that are handled with drama but in low key resolution. The crescendo is not combustive; in fact, it is silent, and still and really quite beautiful.

The Wedding approaches an emotional actualization in a different way. The storytelling tempo is frenetic and idealistic where Fill the Void is slow and sentimental. There is little humor in Fill the Void but there are moments of joy and deep satisfaction. The Wedding is almost hysterical, partly whimsical, then amusing and romantic in a modest fashion, quite tragic, then worrisome but thankfully delightful by the time the resolution is presented.

Both films use pathos to virtuous effect. In simple terms, pathos elicits emotions of pity, sympathy, and sorrow. The emotional response of a character relies on pathos.

Both films contain a fair share of profundity: intimate conversations with others; intimate self-analysis; and intimate intense conversations with G-d in prayer. The ways in which Shira and Michal are brought to marriage are poles apart as is the way they relate and commune with G-d. While Shira in Fill the Void seems almost submissive and fatalistic, Michal demands something of G-d and one holds one breath hoping G-d will deliver otherwise there is no knowing what Michal will do.

The Wedding possesses a crazed power but also empowerment; there is prayer, there is hope, there are absolute faith and trust but there is also an edge of something frightening and fearful and absolutely horrifying. There is a point when you ask yourself, what will Michal if there is no miracle?

Once again, I refer to David Mamet’s astute guidance. When he talks about the story a writer must tell he says it is: ‘the internal story of the hero’s persistence in a difficult world.’

In her own way, Michal in The Wedding creates her own difficult world and her internal persistence manifests itself externally in her story.  The finale is both ‘surprising and inevitable’ (Mamet is so right) which I feel 100% reflects how Michal feels about G-d. While Michal takes us on a roller-coaster of a ride that leaves us breathless, the film gives us something satisfying as it gives Michal her just deserts.

Fill the Void also satisfies the viewer; while it takes Shira and her family until the end of the story to have their resolution, we the viewer can see the resolution much clearer yet it is still compelling viewing to watch the story come to its conclusion which is executed with charm, emotion and drama.

Burshtein is masterful in the artistic craftsmanship of both films; both in storytelling and in direction.

Fill the Void views like a close up of an intimate portrait; the details are so fine and tangible. The stillness of the story’s actualization is satisfying; almost sensual in a most modest manner.

By contrast, The Wedding is a deeply internal exploration of a single girl through external methods and means.  This film is intense. Michal tests herself and also G-d; she challenges G-d and herself to the edge of reason and I loved going there with Michal and Burshtein.

In summary and taking the above mentioned into consideration, let me stop a moment and apply what I gained from these two films to the process of originating story and the process of story writing:

When considering what story we want to write we have to consider the following:

  1. What story do we want to tell; must we tell?
  2. How are we going to tell this particular story: what is the best method?
  3. What is the central purpose of our story; and why do we really want to tell it? The answer to this question will help fuel and sustain our story writing resolve and intent.

Fill the Void and The Wedding each has a specific intent; they are purpose-led films.

Fill the Void tells us how a girl deals with the death of her sister and how she makes a decision about who and how to marry in relation to this tragic turn of events.

The Wedding tells us how a mature girl who yearns for marriage literally conjures up a miracle and gets married.

If you can write in one sentence the intent of your story, this will serve you well; you can return to this intent at any time during the writing process to remind yourself why you want to write this story.

David Mamet offers a practical piece of film directing advice which I will end with here in relation to story writing:

‘Understand your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.’

What this means to me in relation to the above-mentioned analysis of Burshtein’s two films is this:

Decide what story you must create, write it until it is 100% the way you want it, and then stop.

Next, invite someone you trust and respect who is an authority in a related field (such as a published writer, an editor, screenwriter, director, producer or script editor) to read the work. I would also consider a small group of individual general readers read the work to give you an inkling to how your work will be received.

Ask everyone that reads the work to give you constructive feedback. This will help guide you when you go to revise the work to ensure it is coherent and that you have honored your story intention.  Bear in mind, all writing is fluid until a story is set for publication or a film edit has been approved. There is flexibility until that time to do whatever it takes to get your work just right.

Then go about finding the right people to bring your story to the public in the medium you feel is best or the best medium offered for the story.

Until next time – good luck with your writing.

 

Photograph credit: Still from Fill the Void.

Resources:

Fill the Void: International Trailer

The Wedding

 

David Mamet: On Directing Film

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12517.On_Directing_Film

 


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