A Big Felafel Exclusive: Unorthodox.
We at The Big Felafel like to think we are super cool people. You may agree. You may not agree. And we might not care. Who are we kidding, we would care. But when my friend Shira Katz asked if I would be interested in writing about a documentary film she is producing called ‘Unorthodox’ I had a moment of awe.
I felt cool. Really cool. Because this film is amazing. ‘Unorthodox’, a feature documentary, tracks the lives of three teenagers from the modern Orthodox community as they spend their post-high school year studying in Israel. The film follows the teenagers through their journey in Israel and America. The documentary tells this intimate story with personal video diaries, giving us those real life moments that are both raw and profound.
As well as the story of these three teenagers, the documentary weaves together Anna Wexler’s own story. Wexler, the woman behind the documentary who left her modern Orthodox community, reveals her own life story adding a very private layer to the film.
In this exclusive behind the scenes, check out our Q&A with filmmaker Anna Wexler herself and a special Vlog from Producer Shira on the Kickstarter Campaign!
Q: Why did Anna decide to do this documentary?
A: In a sense, this documentary tells my own story. I grew up in the Modern Orthodox community in New Jersey, and as a teenager, I broke away from the religion. I watched as many of my friends graduated from high school and went to spend a year studying in a seminary in Israel. These friends had also grown up in Modern Orthodox homes, but like me, they had rebelled, and were not religious by the time they went to Israel. When they came back from their year in Israel they had completely changed: some of my male friends no longer spoke to me since they didn’t want to get “distracted” by women; others now wore black hats and spent their mornings learning in yeshiva. My friends who were girls were suddenly wearing long skirts and long sleeves. And everyone strictly adhered to Shabbat (no more going out on Friday night) and kosher.
I wanted to find out what happens over this year—what makes people change so drastically, and why do the changes happen so reliably, year after year? Originally I wanted to write an article or thesis about the “year in Israel” but I met a producer who suggested that I make a documentary film about the experience. So as a sophomore in college, I got my close friend Nadja Oertelt on board. We taught ourselves a bit about documentary film and together we set out to follow three teenagers through their year in Israel.
Q: How, if any, has the goal changed throughout the process?
A: I think the goal has always remained the same—to find out what happens over the year in Israel. What changed was that I became a character in the film. All throughout production people told me that this was my story and that I should be in the film, but I stubbornly resisted. It was only many years later, in the editing room, that I realized how much richer the story would be if you watched the teenagers travel to Israel through my eyes, and if Orthodox Judaism was explained through my childhood experiences instead of using onscreen text. In addition, I saw that my story—of leaving the community—could add another layer to the film, and thus the film could encompass a broader variety of personal experiences with religion.
Q: Why did Shira become an Associate Producer?
A: I met Shira when I moved to Israel, and we’ve been close friends since 2009. When I was working on the full-length rough cut this summer, she provided helpful advice and feedback, and when I was working on the trailer this fall, Shira was there at all hours of the night. I would share my screen on Skype and she’d help me tweak the individual cuts. Nadja and I have been thinking about bringing on a third person for a while now, and Shira was always the front-runner in my mind (I don’t think she knows that). When we launched the Kickstarter campaign in December and were overwhelmed with responses, Nadja and I decided that it was the right time to bring on a third person and we made Shira a formal offer. Lucky for us, she accepted.
Shira also has a personal connection to the film—she grew up in a religious home and has been through her own struggles with the faith.
Q: What’s it like filming in Israel as oppose to America?
A: People react to the camera differently. In America, we felt that people tended to be more suspicious—Americans have a deep-seated sense of privacy and personal rights, and they are sensitive to potential violations of those rights.
When we filmed in Israel, we often encountered the opposite issue—people were so enthusiastic about being on camera that they’d wave their hands in front of the lens or stick their faces right into the camera and shout random things. Fortunately, Nadja—who was doing the filming—doesn’t understand Hebrew, so whenever they yelled at her, she was able to block it out pretty easily. I found myself clearing the way and trying to fend people off as Nadja was shooting.
Q: Why should people see this film?
A: First and foremost, it’s going to be a great movie with a fascinating narrative! By weaving together the very different experiences of four characters, the audience will really get a picture of the varied personal struggles that people undergo with fait. This is something that is not really openly talked about, especially in the Orthodox community, where on the whole, it’s not okay to seriously question. Unorthodox will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will definitely surprise you—there are plenty of plot twists.
Also, I think that Unorthodox will bring up important discussions about the year in Israel and the Modern Orthodox educational system. On a personal level, I’d really like the film to spark conversation about attitudes towards people who seriously question, or outright reject, Orthodox Judaism. We’ve gotten so many emails from people who are not religious but who are afraid to “come out of the closet” for fear of losing their families and social networks. Right now the approach is largely black or white: you’re either religious or not. The reality is that religious beliefs are fluid—it’s a journey, not a two-sided coin.
Don’t just look forward to the film, make it happen and join their Kickstarter Campaign.