You don't have to look far in New York City to find subject material for a foreign film, and writer-director Joshua Weinstein has proven just that with his debut Menashe. Spoken almost entirely in Yiddish, the movie follows its eponymous character, a Hasidic Jew living in Borough Park, Brooklyn who's trying to retain custody of his boy following the death of his wife. The community insists he get remarried before he can raise his son properly, and it soon becomes clear that they might actually have a point: Menashe is lovable but completely aloof, a comedic figure overflowing with irresponsibility and pathos.
The heartfelt look at the insular community is given credence by its star Menashe Lustig, who draws from real life for inspiration: He's a real Hasid, he also lost his wife, and he's battling for the right to raise his son. What's more, acting in a film could get him kicked out of his community. Weinstein nevertheless committed to the uncertainty and reality of his film, transitioning into fiction from documentary, working with mostly untrained actors and initially fronting some of the costs to achieve an unflinching, humanized look at a world we seemingly know so little about.
We sat down with Weinstein to discuss how he first met Menashe, going undercover in Hasidic communities, and the terror of the shoot's first two weeks.
How did you first discover the Hasidic community in Borough Park?
Joshua Weinstein: Yoni [Brook], who I shot the film with, also works in documentaries. We liked exploring New York and taking photographs—there's so much to see everywhere. One summer, I went to every beach in the city: Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens. Yoni took me to [Borough Park] on Purim, and some of the most religious, insular, conservative people in New York City were opening us into their house, giving us drinks, and having regular conversations with us. It was eye-opening to me. It was at that moment, years ago, when Yoni and I knew we were going to make a film about the Hasidic community.
I understand much of the story is based on Menashe's life. How did you meet him?
I was an old school sleuth—I'd put on a yarmulke, white shirt, and black pants, and hang out in Borough Park. I started in September 2014, and I met Menashe three months later. I also found videos on YouTube of Menashe's brother-in-law Lipa Schmeltzer. He's the most popular Hasidic singer—he calls himself the Hasidic Lady Gaga. I met a producer involved in one of his videos, and he wanted me to meet Lipa. I went on set one day, and there was Menashe.
He was this Charlie Chaplin-esque man who was just so charismatic. I wasn't drawn to him because he was funny or over-the-top—it was because there was this deep sadness in him. When he told me that his wife had passed away and his son lives a few blocks away from him, I said, "That could be the narrative arc that could hold all these moments that I wanted together."
How did you convince him to make the film? He can be kicked out of the community for it.
He can be, yes. I always wanted to make an honest film so it showed bad and good aspects of the world. From the get go I knew it had to be in Yiddish, so I had to get real Hasids. You can't call up CAA and get Hasidic actors. I know because I did. [Laughs.] They didn't get back to me. So I said to him, "I'd love to talk to you more."
He told me to come to New Square, which is 20 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. It's one of the poorest towns in America—all Skverer Jews, one of the most extreme sects of Hasidic Jews. There's one road into his neighborhood and one road out. I showed up there, and someone was like, "What are you doing here? What do you want?" Everyone wants to know, and if you wear a yarmulke, it doesn't matter.
Was he game?
He's been waiting his whole life for this opportunity. He says he's always wanted to be an actor and his teachers used to smack him [for it] when he was a kid. When he went to Sundance, that was the first time he had ever been in a movie theater—and he was watching a movie that has his face in every single frame.
How did the community react to you shooting the film?
We were in the streets for 12 hours a day with a crew. Everyone shows up to watch, and then you get people hissing at you. Occasionally you'll get people who are upset and don't want you there, and I understand how they feel that way. It is a public street, and we weren't doing anything illegal—so sorry, we're here. Most people don't care; they're just happy to watch.
It was funny how unintimidated people were by the camera. One day, we were doing a very emotional scene. We were out on the streets with lights out, two cameras, and a boom operator. A guy walks up during his monologue and says, "Menashe, I have this box. Can you take it for me?" The cameras are rolling!
I understand that a lot of the dialogue was ad-libbed.
A lot of the actors were really brilliant improvising, but some we had to write for. One scene that should have taken only three hours took ten instead—the scene where Menashe begs the rabbi to give him custody of his son for a week. It's like every word was a Talmudic debate about what the Yiddish was—everyone had different opinions, and this poor translator was going back and forth with us. It was just exhausting. After that day, Menashe almost quit. This was a stupid, difficult film to make in every way possible, and I couldn't imagine making it any other way.
Was that a moment where it felt like the film was doomed?
I was actually shocked how hard it was to get money for this film. Nobody thought it was a good idea. I ended up having to front a lot of money. It was so bad that I sent back half the C-stands and half the extension cords. It was more important just to spend time with these actors and have food for them to eat. Those first two weeks were so trying, but once we got through those first two weeks and edited everything, we realized that this was something magical.
Follow Ethan Sapienza on Twitter.