In 2008, the young New York filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein made Flying on One Engine, a bio-doc on Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet, a frail septuagenarian plastic surgeon who every year left his rundown Brooklyn apartment to return to his homeland of India to perform free corrective surgeries. The film was a hit on the festival circuit, but the doctor's daughter wasn't happy with the way her father was portrayed. She let Weinstein know about it, and her opinion hurt.
"You don't make these films for anything else than artistic passion," says Weinstein, speaking to The Globe and Mail recently in Toronto. "The fact that I could hurt somebody making a film was very difficult for me to understand and to deal with."
Nearly a decade later, and with another documentary (2012's Drivers Wanted, about New York cab drivers) under his belt, the director-cinematographer is more wary when it comes to his subject matter. His new film (his first foray into narrative fiction) is Menashe, a gentle drama about an ultra-Orthodox widower in danger of losing custody of his young son. Performed by non-professional actors almost entirely in Yiddish – a language dead to modern cinema – Menashe stars Menashe Lustig, whose life the film is loosely based upon.
For Lustig (and for the insular Hasidic Brooklyn community that wanted no part of the film at all), Weinstein needed to get it right.
"As a director, I couldn't live with myself making something that people I spent part of my life with didn't appreciate," he says.
Weinstein, a secular Jew, sought authenticity in the making of Menashe. The actors, the locations, the extras, the language, the songs, the biblical references – it all had to be nailed. "It was an impossible task," Weinstein says. "But if it wasn't exactly right, what was the point of making it?"
The question from the handsome, bearded filmmaker was rhetorical. But beyond the authenticity, what exactly was the point of making the film? Certainly the vast majority of the people it portrayed would not be seeing Menashe. This is a community whose ultra-Orthodox Jewish men showed up to New York's Citi Field in 2012 by the tens of thousands, all garbed in black suits and traditional head-wear, to attend a religious rally against the dangers of the Internet. (Women watched the affair at viewing parties elsewhere.)
Parents send their children to school in a bus with blacked-out windows, so that they are not exposed to the sights of the modern New York world. Heck, the first time the star of Menashe ever stepped into a film theatre was to watch the film that bore his name, earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I wanted to drop the viewer into this part of the world that they'd never seen before," says Weinstein, who worked closely with co-producer Daniel Finkelman (a Hasidic Jew) on the set. "I love to be surprised by film."
In an effort to achieve a sense of surprise and voyeuristic tone, Weinstein kept the look of the film humid, documentative and gritty, often shooting with telephoto lenses. "We made the frames feel dirty. We never wanted to compose anything too nice. Any artifice would take away the audience's feeling of discovery."
The Hasidic community did not co-operate with Weinstein. His film crew was kicked out of locations on occasion. Very few ultra-Orthodox Jews answered the casting calls; often they failed to show up for shoots.
"It was difficult," Weinstein says. "Many times we felt the whole film was going to fall apart at any moment. It was very, very stressful."
The film got done. And if the only person who enjoyed Menashe was the film's titular star himself, Weinstein would probably be okay with that. "At first he was worried no one would get it," says the filmmaker, who describes the sad-eyed Menashe Lustig as Chaplin-esque. "He didn't understand why the rest of the world would care to see this movie."
Weinstein told Lustig to trust him, that audiences would laugh and they would cry at a hapless, rumpled character. And that has been the case.
"People want to express themselves," Weinstein says. "For Menashe, watching the film at Sundance was one of the most fulfilling moments of his life. In this film, he was able to share his emotions, and he did it in a way he didn't know how to do otherwise."