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'Menashe' director wants to 'make the world smaller through films'

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in
Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in "Menashe."
Wehkamp Photography
Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in
Menashe Lustig in "Menashe."
Wehkamp Photography

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Filmmaker Joshua Weinstein wanted to make a movie set in Brooklyn’s Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, starring non-professional actors from that community. His biggest obstacle was convincing people who don’t attend movies to be in one.

"Most of the people in the movie had never seen a movie before," said Weinstein, "let alone [been] in a movie theater."

Weinstein's movie is called “Menashe” and is based largely on the real life of Menashe Lustig, who plays the title character. When they met, Weinstein learned that Lustig was a widower and that he'd lost custody of his son. In the film, the main character cannot regain custody of his son, according to the rabbi, until he remarries. 

Lustig had made YouTube videos but had never seen a movie. That is, until he attended the Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of "Menashe." According to Weinstein:

To know that I honestly depicted a world and society that has not been captured, and that both Menashe could love it and a Mormon person in Utah could love it too, [that's] my mission as a filmmaker — to make the world smaller through films.

Weinstein, who is not Hasidic and doesn’t speak Yiddish, spoke with The Frame's host John Horn about how he gained entrée into this insular community. 

Interview highlights:

On casting people from the Hasidic community in New York:

There are hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic Jews in the Brooklyn area. Only about 60 showed up for auditions, so you couldn't imagine anything. I couldn't imagine a woman juggler because I couldn't find a Yiddish-speaking woman juggler — it didn't exist. After I found Menashe, we created an outline around his life. He told me two details about his life: one, he's a widower; and two, is that he lost custody of his son. I wanted to create a story that was so insular to that world and didn't make sense to the rules that apply to our world. This is a very fictionalized account of his life, very few actual details are the same, but it connects to his emotional reality. 

On the Hasidic community's view of technology:

This is about the most extreme form of Judaism. For these people, when they came here post-war or around WWII, telephones were even against the rules to their community. Then cassette tapes, then CDs — every new invention was against the rules, so they are permanently fighting modernity at every place. Some of these are typical people, like the rabbi works as a cab driver in the community, the brother-in-law actor works as a paralegal in the community, the shopkeeper works as a shopkeeper, so these are people who just have a passion to tell stories and they didn't have an opportunity before. No one in this film wants to bring down the house, they just want a chance to express themselves in ways that usually aren't possible. 

Menashe Lustig and Joshua Z. Weinstein on set of
Menashe Lustig and Joshua Z. Weinstein on set of "Menashe." Weinstein spoke with The Frame about making the film.
Photo credit: Federica Valabrega, courtesy of A24

On how the rules of the community affect Menashe's predicament:

As a storyteller, I was interested in what happens when somebody never has the idea of leaving. How does that affect the character? It's so easy for us today, when we have problems in our lives we can always walk away from it, we can always change. But what happens if we have to work it out? And I just loved writing a character who never thinks about leaving.

On how he approached shooting the film:

I make films not about plot, but about moments. I spent months with a pad and paper just observing, watching people. Literally, I made the whole film to have one scene where 10,000 people dance around a fire and sing. I wanted to include that moment. When I heard there's a rabbi's portrait that you put up and it prevents mice from coming in your house, I just knew I had to create a plot line that included this rabbi's portrait. I wanted to show the inside of religious bathing houses because I've never seen that in a movie before. So literally this is just a string of moments that I think will teach us about humanity in ways we never expected. 

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