Tapping into a Reclusive Community: In Conversation with ‘Menashe’ Producer Alex Lipschultz

Menashe is more than a character study, than a map of the complexities of fatherhood in a rigid community. Through its naturalist portrayal of the Hasidic community of Borough Park, it is the unfolding of the specificities of a rarely captured world, a meditation on resilience and acceptance in face of rigid circumstances. The way Menashe Lustig carries himself manages to transcend cultural and traditional barriers, it charms and it frustrates, as his unlikely custody battle fluctuates between religion, emotion and conformity. We chat with Alex Lipschultz, of Lovesong (2017) fame, co-writer and producer of the film, about tapping into a community that not even National Geographic could have filtered through the same lens of unaltered realism.

How did you manage to tap into the Hasidic community, despite it being famously closed to outside media?

One of the biggest challenges of making the movie was getting access to the community. They’re very closed off; they don’t like to deal with outsiders much. When Josh [director] and I decided to make a film set in this world we knew that the hardest thing would be finding people in the community to teach us about it and eventually to take part in the film as actors. That took a lot of convincing and many, many, months.

What were the stakes for the actors involved in the project?

It’s tricky. I think all of them had different reasons for wanting to be involved. For some, the stakes were a lot higher – once people learned that they were in a movie they risked being thrown out of their community. These were folks that were mainly not even allowed to watch movies, let alone act in them. But I think ultimately everybody wants to tell their story and to have their lives represented on screen.

I know that in the film you worked exclusively with non-actors. How did you manage to arrange that given the restrictions of the community?

I’ve done a few films with non-professional actors and a few films with movie stars. The process of making them is so different. We didn’t necessarily give them a script, but more of a scenario to see how natural they can be on screen with a little direction. It was already almost impossible to convince people from the community to even consider the possibility of being in the film – but to then find people that also had this ability to act naturally and convincingly makes it sort of a miracle that it exists.

I’ve read that most of the actors have not even been to the cinema before. How did you approach the direction you were giving them?

You’re right; even Menashe’s first time at the cinema was at the premiere of our movie at Sundance, which was kind of amazing. With non-professional actors, one of the tricks that Josh and I have learned over the years is that you don’t give them scripts, you don’t give them lines to memorise – going through that process is something that requires years of training. Instead, you lay a fairly normal scenario for them and you explain where they are in their lives, where they are in their day, how they feel about that other actor – slowly walking them through the steps of the scene and then rehearsing it until they loosen up.

So how did you start thinking about the story initially ? How much of the story was written around Menashe?

Josh comes from a documentary background and I knew that he wanted to make a film set in the community but originally thought of it as a documentary. He went out trying to meet people in that world, in Borough Park and other surrounding areas and eventually met Menashe Lustig and found him to be this captivating jovial presence with an interesting undercurrent sadness. Once he learned about his life story, he immediately felt like this was a captivating and emotional story and so from that point on he started to build a movie on Menashe’s life and that’s when he called me to propose the idea of writing it and producing it together.

It’s very interesting how Menashe never really strays away from the community’s values. He is constantly finding different ways to approach his place in the community as opposed to trying to leave.

Often when you see these characters in films or when you’re reading news articles or watching documentaries about people in the Hasidic world – it’s almost always about people who have left. And there’s a reason for that – people who have left are more likely to talk to the press – but that’s not the normal day-to-day circumstances of these people’s lives. We felt like the central drama of the movie would be so interesting if it was really about Menashe trying to remain a good orthodox Jew while holding on to his individuality. It was always very important to show him trying to fit in with that world. No matter what world you come from you’re always trying to fit in it.

What has the reception in the community been like so far?

It was less controversial than we thought it would be. When it first played at Sundance and people found out about it there was a bit of uproar – but once people heard about it from those that went to watch it they felt like even though this movie probably shouldn’t exist and the actors that are in it probably shouldn’t have done it they felt like the portrayal of the community was authentic enough for them to look the other way. Not everybody – some actors got some flack from family members or other community members. But by and large, people have accepted it by this point.

Menashe (2017) is out now in UK cinemas. For tickets and more information visit http://menashemovie.com/.

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