There are many movies out there that talk about religions in any direction you wish. Most of them are interesting and educational. Some of them touch family values or how certain individual are being treated in a community. MENASHE directed by Joshua Z Weinstein follows the title name whose tender relationship with his son and what it means living in an ultra-ortodox Jewish community in New York.
As a person who is not so much into religion, I found it fascinating how refined the movie was made. It opens up horizons, explores the intimidating nature of faith and the beauty of being deeply religious.
During Joshua Z Weinstein‘s trip in Toronto, I managed to get a few minutes with him to discuss Menashe, which I am more than happy to share with you now.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you learn about Menashe’s story?
Joshua Z Weinstein: I come from documentary and I wanted to make a fiction film. Because the documentary felt like you can do so much with narrative. If it doesn’t happen in front of the camera it never happened. So I lost my taste for that and I was hungry for something that could have been so meaningful and deep. And as a documentarian I worked in India and all over the world, South Africa, Asia. I just wanted to do something that felt foreign. Also for me the cinema is about learning, about understanding myself. I looked across the street and I saw these people who were my cousins, my brothers but I don’t understand them whatsoever.
And I thought it was a wild place to make a film. also, no one ever made a film in this community before. I really was also liking the impossibility of making this film. So I went out there and started talking to people. And one of the producers Daniel Finkelman, he’s from the same community, he introduced me the people of Menashe and the actor I met and immediately fell in love with him. There is deep sadness inside him in the same point there is humor and somewhat being a sad clown. And his look was so captivating on the camera that I knew right away that I can make a film around him.
MOVIEMOVESME: The film itself is in Yiddish which was not used in cinema for many years. How challenging for you was going with original language and not just English. or even getting actors to speak in it.
Joshua Z Weinstein: So there were hundreds of thousands of people who speak Yiddish in Brooklyn and only a few dozen showed up for audition. It was almost impossible to make a film. But I knew that I still can make it in Yiddish. I kind of knew the actors and knew that there were no need for them to remember all the lines or making a mark on the ground. I just needed to allow them to be more comfortable with this to go.
MOVIEMOVESME: Menashe appeared to be like an innocent child who is yet to learn his first step in this world. In the meantime, he is a grown up man.
Joshua Z Weinstein: Most films about religion are about how people live with religion. But for me I always wanted to know why people stay in religion. That is a piece which was so interesting to me so I told about it in Menashe. In terms of his issues or his faults, I thought we all have this kind of friend that has done the same mistakes Menasha had done. His faults are universal in sense of … I just wanted to make a character that we felt for and that in our society will would not be so quick in judgment. you know, he’s not that dependable but he still should be a father. We would have never questioned his ability to be a father in our society.
MOVIEMOVESME: You said that you’re a documentarian as well which takes me to my question about Menashe, that looked more like a documentary. Did you have to adapt your documentarian skills into your feature film?
Joshua Z Weinstein: It definitely was hard and certainly it was a big jump in many ways. I worked with two screenwriters and one of them was a Muslim (Musa Syeed – Ed.). I worked with a lot of amazing people and was happy to collaborate with them. The challenges going from documentaries to fiction was way easier than making a film with non actors who would not show up or quit or would lose patience, raising money and everything else. And that was hard part.
MOVIEMOVESME: You have spent two years to make this film which I am curious to learn about the whole process. And let’s face it, you are very lucky to have those years to complete your film.
Joshua Z Weinstein: Yes, I was very lucky. Having time is the biggest luxury. It allows you to change many things in it. The 56 scenes were already planned out before we started shooting. But then as we went we would reshoot scenes. We would make changes. But it also was terrifying because can the actors come back, you know? The actors change. They might gain weight. So there were a lot of challenges as well. So having time was a gift but it was also crucial because things could fall apart. And the best plans would have to be adapted.
MOVIEMOVESME: How was it for you to work with Menashe, whose story was told in the title film?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Menashe is a brilliant actor. By take three he would always take. He was just being in that moment: his face, so expressive eyes. His whole body just exuded something specially. In terms of adapting it, I wanted him to feel the emotions he had. But the actual narrative is false, he never had to make this meal or had an uncle. Or brother-in-law. All these characters never existed, but it all was about what he felt.
MOVIEMOVESME; I wonder character wise, Menashe is so generous, simple and honest. One particular scene when he refused to sell unwashed cabbage to customer talks volumes.
Joshua Z Weinstein: What I wanted to show is that this is a deeply religious person. He’s not somebody who questions fate, he’s somebody who extensively believes in it. I was really interested to know if he believes in faith what happens when you really don’t believe in it. And that was something interesting I wanted to explore from the character’s perspective. And also love that he believes in it more than his boss. Then he goes to date with a woman where Rabbi believes that the woman shouldn’t even drive but Menashe thinks she should. So everyone has a slightly different belief. It is a religion that us, outsiders feel like monolithic. There is one concept what the belief means. And it’s a huge range what it means to be religious inside that.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you manage to find the right actor to portray Menashe’s son?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Kids are a lot smarter than we think they are. Even though he is nine years old he still understands, first of all what society thinks about your father; and you create acceptance. I like the fact that Ruben (Ruben Niborski – Ed.) loves his father and wishes everyone else to be like his father. And also kind of hates his father for his brother in law who he looks up to also hates his father. So its very complex inside his mind. So to find a child in that community was almost impossible and had to find it from Israel. So he’s the only actor that’s non-American.
MOVIEMOVESME: I wonder if I asked you to describe Menashe in three words. What would you say?
Joshua Z Weinstein: Three words? Why? (laughter) You’re not going to give three words to somebody like Menashe. Menashe is somehow like all of us trying to do what is right. So writing him and directing him I always saw myself or a family member or friend. You know, I didn’t want to make his flaws something that was awful. His mistakes are not so bad. It’s not about what he does wrong it is just the fact that he is in disagreement with authorities. As a character, and again, like me, very proud and he’s very proud. But his proudness goes so far that he won’t accept any help. It is just a fun character to watch and be part of.