It sounds as if the rules became your aesthetic.
It didn't bother me at all that the movie was very fundamental because I wanted to go into that world and to show that there were human beings in this world... they're all human, just like us. The rules are a bit different, I'll admit. But eventually, when you see the movie, you identify with them for an hour and a half, and then you understand that we're not that different. Everybody has tests, everybody believes in something and everybody lives in accordance with their beliefs and pays the price.
"Everybody" implies that there was an audience for Ushpizin.
The film was very successful in Israel, even with religious people who are not ultra-orthodox, with people who are allowed to go in theaters, and of course, they went to this movie. Secular people went to see it, too, and the reviews were great, from left wing to right wing.
Michal Bat Sheva Rand in Ushpizin
How do you account for good reviews from the left, when there's so much antipathy toward religious parties politically?
Even Ha'aretz, the left-wing newspaper, gave the film a good review. Normally they're not so tolerant of Ultra-Orthodox society. Their critic came to me and shook my hand and said, "Thank you for letting me love them for an hour and a half."
How unusual a reaction is that for a secular Israeli?
From Herzog onward, Israel is a country that denounced its origins, denounced Judaism as a religion. But there is a limit as to how far you can go with that because this country is a trend in Judaism. There's no way to bypass that. It can be a non-religious trend in Judaism, because otherwise, what is it, if not that? When you go to Israel, you see how secularists despise their heritage. There's a very strong rupture from the past, a disconnection. There's a denial of the past. Living in a four-thousand-year-old culture, I felt that it's very crucial to start talking, making a dialog with the past - not necessarily becoming religious, because I'm not, but having a dialog is very very important, and this film hit the core of the issue. This made it entertainment for them, and they identified with it for an hour and a half. This shook the country. It made a certain kind of cultural shock.
At the beginning, secular audiences were afraid. The reviews were great but people didn't want to go because of the religious nature of the film. All the poster showed was religious people. First some religious people started going, so theaters held the film over, but in October, at the time of the holidays, the crowds flooded into the cinemas. Everybody went. Everybody talked about it.
But how did the film reach the community that's depicted on the screen?
Somehow, a copy got on the internet. By the way, even before we finished, a rough-cut copy with a different ending that wasn't finished got out. We took a look on the net, and found five copies available, with hundreds of downloading options. Shuli then told me that in Orthodox neighborhoods, people on the street who had seen the scene of him cooking French fries for his guests started calling out to him, "Moshe, Moshe, how about some French fries?"
We realized that people were watching, so I went after my own statistic. I would go out on the street in Tel Aviv and ask Orthodox people there if they had seen the film and eighteen out of twenty admitted that they had seen it. The other two lied, and said they didn't see it.
I told them, "You know, it's illegal what you're doing." Then we had a strange phenomenon, of people trying to reach us to send money because they felt really bad about not paying for the movie. The religious newspapers did not say a word. The reason they didn't say a word was that most of them saw it and loved it. But they haven't written about it because they can't make it legitimate yet. Nobody wants to be the first to say, "Yes." Even the big rabbis - and some very big rabbis saw the movie, and cried and laughed.
Why didn't they go public and talk about the film?
I think they're not saying anything because they're scared. They saw the flood of people who rushed to see the film. It's a real story that talks about the subject that's most interesting to people - faith.
Ushpizin screens as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, running from July 21 through August 8 in four cities throughout the Bay Area.
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