Menashe is centred around a widowed father who resides in New York’s Borough Park within a heavily Hasidic Jewish community. We find him in a period of his life when things come to ahead; the custody of his son in the balance as his brother-in-laws more affluent and stable family environment is favoured to Menashe's own. Directed by documentary film-maker Joshua Weinstein, the film is a subtle observation of this religious group of outsiders, managing to shed light on their lifestyle without judging but at the same time laying all its flaws bare.
An endearing, heart-warming but sometimes tame but an overall well-presented investigation into the life a person who innately doesn’t quite fit in with the surroundings he was born into.
Menashe (Menashe Lustig), the film's lead, is an interesting mix of vivacity, curiosity and aloofness, a person who naturally doesn’t confirm despite his efforts to do so. With his son no longer staying with him, struggling to make ends meet with his menial job as a grocery clerk but also lack of personal organisation with his newfound single-dom and having to adhere to strict religious codes; it all proves too much.
Weinstein's back-seat documentary style of filming, seemingly allows for the story to unfold organically, with very little camera tricks or any intentionality. The film mainly lies on the shoulders of the actor’s deliveries; resulting in an honest and subtle portrayal with slow building plot. Its subdued non-invasive tones perhaps reflective but simultaneously respectful of the insular nature this community.
We were offered to interview Menashe earlier this week and we jumped at the chance. There are striking similarities between the two; Lustig perhaps is a lot more outgoing, not as down trodden, engaging, never lost for words, curious with an intense artistic and creative spirit. He answers my questions with feverish candour in an often convoluted and roundabout sort of way, wanting to imprint the bigger picture in my head. Our conversation is peppered with Yiddish references, quotes and words; indicating he is heavily steeped in his Hasidic traditions. Above all though he appears truly appreciative of the break this film has given him and the avenue it has provided for him to tell his life story.
Firstly, I wanted to congratulate you on your performance. You gave such a natural delivery, it was thoroughly impressive. The film walks a very delicate line between not being judgemental of the Hasidic Jew community but at the same time not sugar-coating anything. Would you agree?
I would describe it as putting all the cards on the table. I believe the goal of the director is to cover the facts but also to give an informative glimpse into the community. I think it’s good to open things up; make some bridges for people to find out more about the community. Like the way I may want to know about Muslim, Hindu or any other religions which are also quite closed. Someone comes and makes a documentary about it and gives me great insight. Its more about the outside world than the inside world. It was very hard for someone from the outside to go inside, as you would expect.
You mean have access into the community?
Yes! There are lots of reasons for this. Mainly because they (people within the community) are afraid. This was hard for us when making the film. I would be happy if other people told their own story, like I did with this film but I’m not sure others could trust collaborating with the outside world.
So, tell us about yourself. How did you get into acting?
It was very gradual for me. I grew up in small and quite extreme strict village in Upstate New York. It was very Hasidic. But overall an uplifting life, we weren’t part of what’s going in the world in general; but there was a lot of cultural things happening all the time within my village. We studied more as we were more isolated from the outside world. Personally, I am a deep thinker and I always wanted to know more, so I started to search more. The second I got married and came to London, I had the opportunity to go to the library and I went all the time. My friends at the time thought it was funny, that I used to do that. I knew that I didn’t want to be ‘out’ or be a rebel. I just wanted to learn, search, to gain as much knowledge as possible. I came through acting that way; through acquiring knowledge. And then I further investigated the types of acting and find where my talents lie.
For us if someone is funny, they immediately think he's a comedian, so they would ask me to their weddings to do stand-up. But I’m not stand-up, its more about acting for me. As you can imagine in my circles the opportunities are very limited. So I had to fish out on my own into fresh waters. I had to find where oppurtunities lie and I searched a long time. I started making my own YouTube videos. People liked them and I started getting positive feedback. It wasn’t about the money or fame, it was for the feeling of doing something, using my talents. Ideally though, I wanted someone to guide me, to direct me.
A lot of performers start that way now, who are likely not to be in any community.
Well yes! But I didn’t know that at first. So I was surprised by people getting to know me through YouTube. I was acting before in productions in my local community and they knew right away that I had some talent, but there was little encouragement. I don’t think they could handle me going ‘out’ to pursue more acting options.
What do you mean by ‘out’?
Meaning being out in the world. Personally, I don’t feel like I’m ‘out’ or a rebel or anything. I mean if I have to go out in the world to a public place, like the doctors. Does that mean I’m living there? No, I have my own surroundings, my own place which I come back to afterwards. My life is not to be all the time in say Hollywood or on location. If I have to though, I have to. My goal is acting, wherever it may take me.
How did the collaboration with the director come about?
It’s all about timing for this film. Joshua wanted to make a film about the community. I had heard about him after a series of people rejected doing it and when we started talking, of course I wanted to do it. It was easy for me to accept doing it as I was really craving for an opportunity. I really didn’t believe it would come knocking at my door, especially after I was searching on my own for so long. The film was overall Joshua’s idea. I told him I could act anything he wanted. He told me to act my own story as he found it quite touching and he believed that people would respond to it. At first, I told him its a very sad story, I don’t want to make people cry. But he persuaded me by saying my story was inspiring and I had a duty to tell the world. Also he said that I am natural funny, I have humorous manner and it wouldn’t be possible for some of the film to be at least a bit comedic. He was right, the funny bits although unplanned came very naturally. The whole thing was surreal! I mean at some point during filming and I had to ask him ‘Are you sure this not some sort of scam?’
Is that because you felt that you weren’t acting?
Yes! Like how can come someone is so interested in my story and doing a film about it. Are you working me?
Menashe’s character is funny but also very contradictory. You sometimes root for him but other times you don’t, as he doesn’t really help himself with matters.
I try to live in the dark parts of the world also. I have a slogan ‘even if it’s the end of the wall, it’s still the wall’. Its acknowledging that the dark side exist. I sometimes maybe a ‘slump’ and that’s ok, that’s part of who I am.
How much of Menashe is you and how much is fiction?
I would say 95% is true to me. As a lot of parts the story that the director included he didn’t realize they actually happened to me. When I told him that certain things that he added to the story actually happened to me, he thought I was lying. He would say 50%, I would say 95%. But the feelings, emotions that I exhibit are all 100%. The feelings are the same. Feeling of being ‘out’, of being excluded, the loss, the recovery…… It’s all very familiar feelings to me but also to everyone.
How did you get to film within the community? Was there much resistance to filming? And the actors, where they from the community also?
The real story of my life is actually based in London and New York. I moved back to New York after being in London for seven years. The director said he would find it difficult to make it over two continents, so instead he focused the story over a small-time period; over a few days in Borough Park. He decided to film it in Brooklyn, as it’s a more neutral Hasidic area, it’s not in the village where I come from, as it would have appeared more condemning of the community, in a way. Borough Park is the most neutral place for Orthodox people.
We had difficulty finding authentic Hasidic Jewish actors. We have seven large communities, from all the seven, we only found one actor willing to take part. Everyone said no. I mean I know at the end they will be jealous of me….but I’m sorry, I was the only one brave enough to do it, I took the gamble.
Why did I take the gamble? If it succeeds; succeed in my eyes means it will be positively received, and it won’t put the community in a bad light or its at least a realistic depiction. Even if not, at least I’m getting to act. Now, however Im more sure than ever with the amazing result that is this film, that I am on the right track.
Did you actually film in Borough Park? Or was somewhere else that looked just like it?
I did tell Joshua not to film in Borough Park, cause all the time people would come up and interrupt. I would have to tell people not to say anything, not to worry for me. I told the director to film there the least possible because it bothered me. There was one scene which was cut out, where I bump into a lady on my way to taking my son to school.The lady was a very good actor, so was acting the whole thing out being all shouty and aggressive. By-standers that were watching the filming were later saying ‘Menashe bumped into a lady and she wants to sue him’. Most of the filming was done in the same area, by night and by day. The crew tried to hide the cameras as much as possible it so people will not realize we were actually filming.
You forget it’s in New York at points, actually even in America with hardly any English being spoken.
People in my community who will see the film, will be a bit stunned to see place and question how we got in there and filmed it.
The is a revealing moment when Menashe has an open conversation with the two Hispanic workers at the shop he works at. Perhaps the only time he is able to be truly be himself without being judged?
The director wanted to include this as he knows there's a lot of Hispanic people who work for various Jewish business in Borough Park. I guess Menashe worked with them and got to meet them over time. Menashe would find it easier to talk to them about his private life; because they won’t go off and tell a relative or a rabbi. In that scene, he just wanted to talk and feel a release and for someone to listen. Even then, the workers didn’t really get Menashe’s background or what he was talking about, fully.
Menashe has issue with the custody of his son. Surely the custody would go to the living parent?
I say that the child protection would have the same problem. Like how could you take away a young boy away from his father? But then again if Menashe himself is not able to raise him properly? In a way that scene with the conversation with the Rabbi, he felt sorry for Menashe and granted him temporary custody. Its a hard decision, possibly nothing to do with religion. You can’t say whose wrong and whose right. Life is unclear sometimes.
In the last scene, we see Menashe wearing the suit and hat which he was refusing to wear throughout the film. Was that symbolic, that he was starting to confirm?
He turned the page. It’s like the last stages of grief, slowly moving on. He decided to shape up and get with the programme.
Our conversation ends and Menashe sprints off to another interview; enjoying the attention the film is brining him and hopefully the many opportunities the future now holds.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_