#spotlight: MENASHE – A glimpse into a closed society

19. October 2017

How do you shoot a film in a closed ultra-Orthodox Jewish community? Alex Lipschultz, the producer and writer of MENASHE, told us when he visited the ZFF to present his movie in the International Feature Film Competition section that “It was a little bit meschugge”.

Theatrical release: October 19.

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MENASHE (© Yoni Brook)

MENASHE, a drama about a Hasidic Jew who fights for custody of his son, is a hit with audiences and critics alike. According to the ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ website, 96 percent of the film’s reviews are positive. And Alex Lipschultz is one man who has most likely studied those reviews in great detail – not only because he wrote and produced the film, but also because he wanted to be a film critic himself. Chicago-born Lipschultz, now in his mid-thirties, has diligently read Roger Ebert’s film tips in the Chicago Sun-Times since he was young. Lipschultz told me in an interview after the premiere screening of MENASHE at the ZFF that Ebert, probably the most important film critic in the USA, was a great inspiration, and it’s thanks to him that he gained an early interest in film.

After watching a movie by Truffaut during a French lesson, a young Alex was totally amazed by what he saw. He went on to study directing at Boston University, and took writing lessons with the aim of becoming a film critic after graduating. However, no sooner had he penned his first texts than he suffered a severe case of writer’s block: “I didn’t put a word on paper,” recalls Lipschultz, who in his despair began visiting film sets, feeling at the time that he had to “learn more about filmmaking.”

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Alex Lipschultz am ZFF 2017

Lipschultz found himself travelling the length and breadth of America with film crews, and working in Europe as an all-rounder on small indie projects. “I have worked in camera, sound and production departments,” said Lipschultz. In the end, it was the young director Andrew Bujalski who convinced him to concentrate on producing. They teamed up to create the absurd experimental comedy ‘Computer Chess’, which screened in premiere slots at the Sundance and Berlin festivals. “The film was a game changer for me,” recalled Lipschultz. It wasn’t long before Richard Linklater (‘Before Sunrise’) was on the phone asking him to be involved in the TV series ‘Up to Speed’. His fate as a man for non-run-of-the-mill indie cinema was sealed when he worked as first assistant director on Rick Alverson’s brilliant and disturbing comedy ‘Entertainment’.

And this news soon reached the ears of his former school friend Joshua Z Weinstein, who was heavily involved in making his first feature film project. Joshua Weinstein lived between Jamaicans and ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On his quest to find film material, the Jewish secular filmmaker, who had previously shot documentaries about far-off people in the Philippines, decided against the Jamaicans and plumped instead for the Hasidic Jews. Weinstein met a young Orthodox Jew by the name of Menashe Lustig who had a poignant story to tell: because the ultra-orthodox community demands that a child be raised by a man and a woman, Menashe, who refused to remarry after losing his wife, also lost custody of his son.

MENASHE (© Federica Valabrega)

It was hardly documentary material: the incident was too far in the past and the people involved would most likely never have discussed it in front of the camera, yet the story had cast its spell on Weinstein. So he picked up the phone, called his old friend Lipschultz and said, “Alex, I want to shoot a feature film. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do it.” Lipschultz, who like Weinstein grew up in a secular Jewish family, accepted the challenge immediately. “Every film project sounds impossible at first, and this project,” says Lipschultz, with a smile, “sounded particularly impossible.” The greatest challenge was finding a way into the closed Hasidic community. “Hasidic Jews are a sceptical lot, and they're a bit more sceptical when faced with a camera.” In the end it was thanks to Manashe, who was prepared to play the title role himself, that the film team got access to the community. “Manashe realised that he could trust us and that we were not about to embarrass him,” said Lipschultz.

Nevertheless, it still required a dash of chutzpah to make the film. “In New York City you can film everything as long as you don’t stop the traffic,” explained Lipschultz: “You simply hang up a piece of paper with ‘Whoever walks along here takes the risk of being in a film’ written on it. So we went to the Orthodox neighbourhoods, set up the camera, and immediately found ourselves surrounded by 30 men, all with long beards, black hats and black coats.” But he emphasized that the people were not hostile. “They were just curious,” he said.

What made the film truly ‘meschugge’ was the fact that neither Weinstein nor Lipschultz understood Yiddish – and in order to present the life of the Orthodox Jew as authentically as possible, it was necessary to shoot the film in Yiddish. The script, however, had been written in English, and so it was up to Menashe and the other lay actors to carry out the dialogue in Yiddish. Lipschultz laughs: “It was crazy, we shot a film without really knowing what our actors were saying...”

The film's lingua franca is its universal, deeply human story: “We have shown the movie in China and touched people there who were completely unaware of the culture and life of the Hasidic Jew.” MENASHE has long surpassed expectations. The highly successful production company ‘A24’ has secured distribution rights in the USA, with MENASHE being the first ever foreign-language film in its portfolio. It has already grossed two million USD at the domestic box office. The only thing that is still giving Alex Lipschultz a little bit of tummy ache, however, is the fact that the film has still to be shown to the Orthodox community in Brooklyn – he’s curious about the Hasidic reviews.

Interview – Alex Lipschultz


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