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Wednesday 18 December 2013

Fill the Void, Film written and directed by Rama Burshtein, 8* out of 10

It is a truth universally acknowledged in ultraorthodox Jewish communities that a man or woman of marriageable age must either be married or in want of a spouse.  In the Israeli film Fill the Void (Hebrew with subtitles), a costume drama playing in one such community in Israel, writer and director Rama Burshtein tells the story of how the young care-free Shira (Hadas Yaron) is unexpectedly thrown into emotional turmoil when, in the midst of the search for a suitable husband, her elder married sister, to whom she is close, dies giving birth to a boy. 

A few months after these events, Shira’s mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) is faced with the possibility that her widower son-in-law Yochai (Yiftach Klein) might be offered a match with a widow in Antwerp. This would separate her from her beloved late daughter’s baby-boy. 

When she sees how Shira and Yochai look after the baby, she suggests to Yochai to consider a match with Shira. Irit’s plan is controversial not only with her husband but also in the community. For the the match go ahead requires not only the prospective husband and wife to agree with it but also the consent of the Rebbe, the religious and spiritual leader of the community. Moreover, Irit’s headstrong disabled sister Hanna has a different plan of her own. 

With beautiful costumes and set and scenes filmed at a slow pace, Rama Burshtein has succeeded in making an atmospheric film, particularly through the skilful use of photography and music. She gives a sensitive and sympathetic insight into the life of the community depicted in this film. Fill The Void does not deal with religious conflicts; it tells a universal tale, that of the powerful matriarch challenging those around her to respond and succeed in preserving their own identity and pursuit of happiness. 

Burshtein is helped by a strong ensemble of actors, with Irit Sheleg, and especially newcomer Hadas Yaron standing out. Hila Feldman also shines in the small but difficult role of Frieda.

Fill the Void is a demanding film, making the viewer work, as a number of key scenes are open to interpretation, particularly regarding the motives and emotions that lie behind the decisions and actions of the different characters. 

One sign of a quality film is that it leaves us with considerable food for thought and intelligent discussion; Fill the Void certainly does that.

Sunday 8 December 2013

No Place to Go, written and performed by Ethan Lipton and his Orchestra, Gate Theatre, London 8* out of 10

I have just returned from a week in New York, NY, a lively city full of friendly and resilient people who would not want to live anyplace else. So it was appropriate, if unexpected, that yesterday afternoon I would enter the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill to find it having been turned into a New York comedy club. 

On the stage are Ethan Lipton and his three piece orchestra. Ethan is one of those New Yorkers who have grown up in the city they love. Just like Mayor Bloomberg he has made a career of cleaning raw data to turn it into useful information and just like Mayor Bloomberg he has a second job. Unlike mayor Bloomberg, Ethan was a fairly low-level part-time employee and unlike Mayor Bloomberg his other job subsidised and thus made possible by the first one by the first one, is that of a writer and performer. 

Ethan and his band proceed in words and song to tell us the story of his employer, the information providing company, relocating from Brooklyn to planet Mars. Well, it may not really be Planet Mars but for a man from Brooklyn relocating to anywhere outside New York City might as well be relocating to Planet Mars; except perhaps having to relocate to New Jersey, the other side of Manhattan, which would be marginally worse than living on Mars.

In “No Place to Go ” Ethan Lipton and his band have put together a heartbreaking authentic story taking us through an emotional roller coaster of a middle-aged man and his colleagues facing up to the inevitable which hits them unprepared. It is a story that rings painfully true in the voice of the employee, a perspective from which it is rarely articulated. The force of gravity of our market system means that that roller coaster will drag us down. The force of human spirit means, that as we do not go gently into that good night, which the search for shareholders value has in store for many a knowledge worker in our postindustrial age.  The human spirit, even middle-aged, searches creatively for coping strategies. “No Place To Go” is a deeply true and moving story told in an original manner in soliloquy and song. It comes from the heart of New York City, post 9/11 post financial crisis. And New York City has a very human heart. 

Despite some shortcomings in the acoustics that occasionally made it difficult to follow some of the lyrics, No Place To Go, worthy winner of the OBIE award and voted Best Lounge Show In New York, is definitely worth seeing.