Movies I Wish I’d Made – “Ushpizin”

Ushpizin (2005, New Line Cinema) is a combination of great characters, deep and authentic spirituality, humor, and a fascinating world. I can’t think of more I’d ask for.

First in an irregular series. I’m trying to identify the kinds of films that resonate with me in a special way. I don’t mean that these are my only favorite films, but they represent the kinds of films that reflect what I want to do and are usually films I think I could make if given the opportunity.

dvdimage_ushpizinUshpizin (2005, New Line Cinema) is a combination of great characters, deep and authentic spirituality, humor, and a fascinating world. I can’t think of more I’d ask for. The story takes place in modern-day Israel, Jerusalem, to be exact. The story centers on a couple who have become Orthodox in their Jewish faith later in life. The husband, we learn, has a past where he was less than religious. They struggle with obedience to God and their rabbi. They wonder why God has dealt them the hand they have – poor, childless – despite their attempts to be right with Him. When a friend from their ‘old days’ shows up during the Feast of Booths, the reality of their faith and their new life is severely tested.

Here’s the official blurb from the DVD release: Marks the first film made by members of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community in collaboration with secular filmmakers and provides a touching and unique look at the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews as they question and explore their faith. Breaking the barriers between cultures, the film holds a universal and human appeal that transcends any religion or belief. Writer and star Shuli Rand (“Moshe”), winner of the Israeli Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor and the Best Actor Award from the Israeli Film Academy, stars with his real-life wife, Mechal Bat Sheva Rand (“Malli”), as husband and wife whose love is tested and faith is challenged when a secret from the past reveals itself during the Jewish holiday of Succoth.

I appreciate the unashamed sincerity of the faith of Moshe and Malli. The film gives a glimpse into the lives of modern ultra-Orthodox Jews as they seek a path in a modern world. The film shows an appreciation of ancient faith and traditions that are rich with meaning and provide actual answers in crisis. I believe the film is a celebration of authentic faith that is rooted in tradition but not made obsolete or anachronistic. This couple really does believe and trust God. They really do doubt and almost lose it. They fight. They pray passionately and from their hearts. They sin. But none of this feels clichéd to me, nothing syrupy or simplistic even though it is often simple and straightforward. It made me wonder if someone could do a remake of this story but set it in the U.S. Could someone do evangelical Christian characters that are sincerely, deeply people of faith and make it so natural and genuine? I don’t remember seeing it yet.

I wonder if it works because it is set in Israel and there’s something different about Orthodox Jews. Can they seem more authentic because they are just so different than I am? I feel like you could almost use entire dialogue scenes verbatim and place them in the mouths of Christians in America and it would be real. But would it work? I don’t know. I just know that, when I watch Malli pray and sing praise songs in her kitchen and as she pours out her heart with love to God, I just think of her as a sister, not as a Jew. Her faith challenges and encourages me.

So, I heartily recommend Ushpizin. You can get it on NetFlix and probably anywhere else. It never had much commercial success in the U.S. because you have to read subtitles, but it’s an easy follow and flows beautifully.

Working In Middle Spaces

Here’s a common question: “Is your film (music/dance/art) for Christian or non-Christian audiences?” Conventional wisdom (very wisely) preaches that you need to pick your audience.

Here’s a common question: “Is your film (music/dance/art) for Christian or non-Christian audiences?” Conventional wisdom (very wisely) preaches that you need to pick your audience. I think many Christian artists tend to instinctively draw a dividing line between those who are ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ when they craft their stories.

I think that the dividing line(s) can easily fall in other areas. For instance, if I am looking at my audience, I may choose to treat some viewers who are Christian and Secular as one group, joined by other interests. I may also exclude some viewers who are Christian and Secular from my core audience, because they have different interests. Maybe this isn’t a surprise to you, but it feels like there is pressure away from this in what may be considered ‘mainstream Christian’ media channels.

The Enemy God Poster
The Enemy God Poster

Here’s where this hits me. We have a film story, Yai Wanonabalewa: The Enemy God, that comes from a profoundly Christian worldview but also is of interest to audiences who don’t hold to that worldview. So when we screen the film and introduce it to people, we get a lot of interest from both sides because they share a common interest in things like indigenous stories, spirituality, independent film, etc. They don’t, however, always share a commitment to a Christian worldview. The opposite is also true. Some audiences who share the basic worldview of the film may not like it and some who might be passionate about indigenous issues may reject it for various reasons. So, when someone asks me about my film’s audience (and if the questioner is Christian) they usually give me an odd look when I say we are aiming at both Christians and Non-Christians with our film. It’s as if we are hopeless fools who just don’t get it, or are just too un-disciplined to make a hard choice.

Really, I would argue, we are aiming for a different ‘tribe’ – one who may not be joined by religious belief, but by other passions. And the faith elements are able to mix and provoke like a good parable. I would like to suggest and encourage you to be disciplined to focus on an audience (and not try to say, “it’s for everyone!”) But I would also encourage those of you who are creating stories that work in what some call ‘middle-spaces’ of our culture. We need visual stories that gain a hearing in every sub-culture and ‘tribe’. And, sometimes, we discover that we are able to encourage people who share our faith claims, who are wandering around in those same middle spaces, looking for someone of faith who will speak to them as well.

We are about to screen The Enemy God here in Denver at the Starz FilmCenter, hosted by the Denver Film Society. (press release below) The cool thing for us, by God’s grace, is that we are playing alongside films that deal with alternative lifestyle issues, native american issues, thrillers, religion, etc. It’s a privilege that many films that come from a Christian worldview don’t get. So we are hoping to make the most of it and the conversations that are provoked. In some ways, I feel that we have stumbled our way in to these things. I hope the conversation encourages or does something else to you!

Starz FilmCenter Press Release