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Movie: Director Joshua Weinstein Explains The Story Behind 'Menashe'


There's a new film out called "Menashe" about a widower who's trying to regain custody of his son. It's set in New York City, specifically in Borough Park, Brooklyn. And you will probably need the subtitles to follow it. It's in Yiddish.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in Yiddish, laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Yiddish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Yiddish, laughter).

SIEGEL: It's about Hasidic Jews, people we tend to place in the broader group of ultra-Orthodox Jews. And the actors in "Menashe" are Hasidic Jews, or Hasidim. Documentarian Joshua Weinstein directed the movie. He is neither a Hasid nor a Yiddish speaker. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JOSHUA WEINSTEIN: Oh, thank you so much. This is a big honor.

SIEGEL: And first, we should clarify who the Hasidim are. Who are these people that the movie's about?

WEINSTEIN: So Hasidism, it's interesting because it is actually the liberal movement of Orthodox Judaism from a few hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. But the interesting thing about them is that once they liberalized, they then have not changed in the few hundred years. So literally whenever something new comes about like the advent of the telephone, telephones are banned because if things are not like they were when it was founded, they don't want to have that part - as part of their culture.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us how you became interested in doing the story that involves your star of the movie, Menashe Lustig.

WEINSTEIN: So ever since I was a child and I'd come back to Brooklyn to hang out with my grandparents, I remember just going through these communities that here they were filled with Jews, but they looked nothing like me and my family. And at the same point, I just loved the way - how they observed the mysticism, seeing these big communal celebrations. But it was always off limits 'cause these people purposefully act as a world apart.

And I remember one day me and Yoni, who's one of the producers and who I shot the film with, we went there during Purim, which is kind of like Jewish Halloween. And here we were. We were into people's houses, drinking with them, chatting with them. And all of a sudden this closed community suddenly seemed very, very open and alive and just humanized in a way I'd never seen portrayed before. And it was immediately then that me and Yoni started discussing that we had to make a film. It took us maybe seven years later before we actually finished it. But that was the initial discussion.

SIEGEL: But this isn't a documentary. This is a dramatic movie. And the actors are all Hasidim. And I gather some of them had never seen a movie before.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. You know, it was incredible. This is a community of hundreds of thousands of people, but only 60 people showed up for auditions. So I would do these improv games with them where I wanted to understand who they were, what their quirks were. And the performances were incredible. Each one was really that person. There was very little self-consciousness about how they performed. And, you know, we somehow brought the whole thing together like a high school musical.

SIEGEL: Well, let's listen to one moment in "Menashe" when his rabbi is explaining to him why not having a wife - he's been widowed - and why that means that he can't have custody of his son.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Rabbi, speaking Yiddish).

SIEGEL: I got a couple of those phrases, by the way. As the Gemora says or the Talmud says, a man needs three things - a nice wife, a nice home and nice dishes. And he doesn't have a nice wife.

WEINSTEIN: (Laughter) And neither - a nice home or nice dishes either.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Neither of those. And so the question is his boy, his son, is living with Menashe's brother-in-law. And the tension of the movie is will he get his - will he get his son back? Something like this actually happened to the actor Menashe Lustig.

WEINSTEIN: Exactly. When I found Menashe, here was this Charlie Chaplin-esque comedian who had this deep sadness about him. And I was just blown away by his command - just raw ability to act. And then he told me two things about his life. One was he was a widower, and two, that his son lived three blocks away from him and he lost custody of him. And then we used the emotional truth of that aspect of his life and created this fictional story around it.

SIEGEL: Now, in that clip that I just played, I could follow the (speaking Yiddish). I was lost after that. I gather your Yiddish isn't much more than mine. How do you direct people making a movie in a language that you don't know?

WEINSTEIN: Yeah, it was almost impossible and incredibly difficult. And scenes that should take only, you know, a quarter day to film would take us an entire day to film. We'd first show up and we would rehearse the scenes in English, would block them so all the actors and me were on the exact same page.

And also, then, when the actors finally went to Yiddish because they're non-actors, you know, they can't repeat themselves. Like, a regular actor is trained that they can repeat the same performance over and over again. Non-actors, everything they do is a one-time event. So when they went to Yiddish it was like a first time for them. And then we had translators who were live translating. So they were constantly recording what was being said, and one of the producers was listening just to make sure that the actors didn't go so much off-book.

But, you know, I'd been working in documentaries for over 10 years. And I've worked in Hindi, Mandarin, Tagalog. And I'm used to - you know, it's how people say something. It's not what people say. It's what their eyes do. It's how their - it's how their hands move. And so much of the film is just about base expressions. And that's what really kept us driven.

SIEGEL: I was wondering whether feature film directors would envy you having a cast of actors, some of whom had never even seen an actual movie. You know, you're working with raw talent there, let's say, people who haven't been - they haven't been ruined by experience.

WEINSTEIN: You know, for Menashe, he had never been in a movie theater in his entire life. And he told us before Sundance that was the first time he was in a movie theater. And the thing was the whole time we're making the film Menashe kept on saying, Josh, I don't get this. Why would people care about the most mundane moments of my life? Why do they want to see how I wake up? Why do they want to see how I pray? Why do they want to see how I bag groceries?

And I said, Menashe, these moments are incredible. You're an amazing performer. And you're captivating. People just want to watch you. And at Sundance, people were laughing. People were crying. And it was kind of like a Meryl Streep moment for Menashe where he felt so validated that people understood his pain and really drew a connection with him.

SIEGEL: What did Menashe make of the movie itself when it was finally all shot and edited? What did he tell you?

WEINSTEIN: First of all, you know, the film doesn't have a big Hollywood ending. And he wasn't used to that. He thought it should be better that a film is more concrete. You know, we know what happens. But now he loves the ending because it feels like his own life. His life hasn't hasn't been decided yet, so why should the film have an ending, too?

SIEGEL: Joshua Weinstein, thank you very much for talking with us about your new film, "Menashe."

WEINSTEIN: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And "Menashe" is out this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.