When Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s CineMondays series opens March 20, viewers are in for a feel-good treat.
In September 2016, The Women’s Balcony opened in Israel. Since then, it’s reached critical success and is set to make the rounds in the U.S., including — after the March 20 screening at the Gershman Y — showings at the Ritz at the Bourse starting on March 24.
PJFF Executive Director Olivia Antsis loved the warmth and spirit of The Women’s Balcony.
“It’s a beautiful and honest film about a group of modern-day religious women who choose to remain true to themselves and their convictions despite the obstacles and opposition they face along the way,” she said in an email. “I also love that the film portrays a segment of Israeli society that is rarely given screen time in mainstream media. We need more diversity in cinema — it’s how we learn about the world and see outside of ourselves. Honestly, it’s how we become more empathetic humans. “
The Women’s Balcony is an entertaining dramedy about a subject that probably isn’t funny. When the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem collapses during a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, leaving the rabbi severely shaken and ill and his wife in a coma, the community has to find a way to fix it.
In the meantime, they’re left without a place to worship and a leader. Enter Rabbi David, a young, charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi who couldn’t be more eager to lead them. However, his rigid beliefs have a less-than-welcome response from the women of the congregation — particularly as Rabbi David leads the men to believe the women’s impurity and lack of modesty is at fault for the balcony’s collapse.
Of course, the women don’t take this too well and ultimately revolt, giving their husbands an ultimatum many critics have compared to a Lysistrata effect in that they threaten to leave their husbands and it tests their own friendships as well.
The characters are compelling and feel familiar, and they highlight a sect of the community often not featured: the moderate, who follow their traditional beliefs without being ultra-strict.
It’s all criteria that fits perfectly in place with the guidelines for CineMondays, one of which, Antsis, said is that the film is new, of excellent quality, and must tell a powerful, important and compelling story.
CineMondays started in 2013 as a shakeup in programming.
“In December 2013, shortly after our Fall Festival came to a close, we talked about changing our spring season to reflect some of the changes and trends we’ve observed in the film industry — like the growing popularity of documentaries in mainstream media and how the affordability of high-quality digital technology has made it possible for young emerging filmmakers to make extraordinary award-winning films that give established directors a run for their money,” Antsis wrote.
They had a Documentaries and Dialogues program and a New Filmmakers Weekend, but this was a chance to expand the programming and the types of films outside of just one genre.
And what better way to beat the Monday blues than watching some good films? It was also already a popular night for programming at the Gershman Y.
“We also knew that in the spring there were many brand-new fantastic Jewish films just beginning to travel the festival circuit that were not available to us when we were first planning our fall festival lineup,” Antsis added. “Extraordinary narrative films from Cannes, Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride, Jerusalem, etc. were now just being released, so why limit ourselves and our audience when we could be showing the best new Jewish independent cinema from around the world.”
In addition to The Women’s Balcony, this year’s CineMondays lineup, which runs through May 8, offers films that will give the audience a chance to see new perspectives.
“People are really excited about this season’s CineMondays lineup because not only do all of the films sound amazing and visually stunning, but all of these films have been hand-picked from the top international film festivals — they are crowd-pleasers, award-winners and films that have truly struck a chord with diverse communities around the world,” she said.
“Cinema provides viewers a portal into each other’s lives, and when we can see into the lives of others, ultimately we have a better understanding of who we are and who we must become.”
That The Women’s Balcony has resonated with an audience outside of Israel is something that still surprises screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.
“I didn’t think it was going work outside of Israel,” she admitted. “It’s a big surprise, and I’m very happy about it.”
The story was inspired by her own upbringing in a religious family in Jerusalem.
“The background is my family and my childhood. I grew up in a religious family in Jerusalem. I took [the characters] from there and the story that I built on them. It’s my experience with religion maybe, but, of course, more dramatic,” she laughed, “but this was the story, my story.”
Though she became secular because she had issues with the way religion was taught and some ideals, the struggles the characters go through are ones she related to.
It’s also a statement on the notion of being moderate and in the middle of the more traditional world and that of being a little more flexible.
“It’s a way of living,” Nehama said. “It’s not because you’re weak and you can’t do all the mitzvot or not because you are less religious, this is the way you want to live your life. It’s something that’s gone here, you don’t have the middle way anymore.”
While none of the women in the movie would outright call themselves feminists as they fight to rebuild their space to worship, the film has a distinctly feminist flavor.
“Part of the reason that this movie is like, you call it a feel-good movie, a part of the reason was because I wanted [it] to be a film that’s speaking about the basis of feminism … they just want to be equal, that’s all,” she said. “And specifically what I hope women will take [is] that if it’s important to us, we can. We can win any fight if it’s important to us. They know they’re equal and when they feel that the new rabbi treats them like less than, they get out to fight for the way they always lived in this community.”
The Women’s Balcony is the first film script Nehama has written, which was exciting for her.
The response from audiences has been rewarding and she thinks that film resonates because the characters are likable and relatable — and easy to root for.
“Someone who wrote about the movie said it reminded them of an animated film, a children’s film, and this is its power because it’s a story of good people, and it’s bad things that happen to good people and right from the start when the balcony falls, you already feel like you know [them] and you like them and you just keep watching and hope they will be fine. And I think it’s very naive movie. We are all naive. Inside of us, we are all children so I think this is the main power of the film.
“The genre is like a children’s movie — good guys and bad guys and they’re all likable; even the bad guy is likable. At least to me,” she said with a laugh.
The Women’s Balcony plays at the Gershman Y at 7:30 p.m. followed by a Q&A with Nehama. Nehama will also be available at the Ritz at the Bourse March 24 following the 4 and 7:05 p.m. showings.
For more information or to buy tickets for PJFF CineMondays, visit PJFF.org or call 215-545-4400.
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