Rama Burshtein is the first Orthodox Jewish woman in Israel to make a feature film for a non-Orthodox audience. But she says Fill The Void is about feelings, not religion. Wendy Mitchell meets the director

With her award-winning Fill The Void, Rama Burshtein becomes the first Orthodox Jewish woman to make a feature film in Israel for the wider community.

The story delves into the world of an Orthodox Jewish family in Tel Aviv. After her sister dies in childbirth, 18-year-old Shira is pushed to marry her sister’s husband to keep him and the baby in the family.

It is not only a powerful family drama, it is a glimpse into a world that has never before been seen on screen from an insider’s perspective. “We are mute, we have no voice in the art world, and definitely in the cinema world, and everyone is interpreting us,” Burshtein says of the Orthodox community. “For me it was about just having that voice. The story is really the second thing I was thinking about. It’s a window.”

Hadas Yaron delivers such a powerful performance as the conflicted Shira that she won the best actress prize at Venice.

That is not the film’s only accolade: it is also the Israeli submission for the foreign-language Oscar, it played in the Toronto, New York and London film festivals and won seven honours at Israel’s Ophir Awards.

Artificial Eye will release in the UK; Sony Pictures Classics has US rights (The Match Factory handles sales).

The success is especially impressive as it marks Burshtein’s first feature film for wide audiences. She has spent the past 20 years teaching cinema and making films within the Orthodox community, including some films for women only. For Fill The Void, she got her rabbi’s blessing to work on the project.

The story itself sprung from reality. Burshtein attended a wedding about seven years ago, when she was introduced to an 18-year-old girl who had been recently engaged to her former brother in law. “I met about 17 cases [of similar matches], and there are a lot more. It’s so natural for a young girl to fall in love with the only man that’s in her home that is not her brother,” she says, during an interview with Screen at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I started writing it because I’m a writer before everything and I wrote it very fast. Then it just took time to convince people they should put their money on me. I’m 46, I’m religious, I’m a mother, who am I? So that took time.” Secular producer Assaf Amir helped to get the project off the ground.

Shooting in her hometown of Tel Aviv, she says: “I was very scared. Every day I walked from my house at five o’clock in the morning to the set, and I was crying the whole walk, begging for help and begging for peace. And I guess it worked because it was beautiful. It was a beautiful experience, it really surprised me. People who were on the set who had been doing films for 30 years were surprised too.”

One key piece of the puzzle was bringing on board Yaron, who offers a nuanced yet impassioned take on Shira. Yaron was just coming out of the Israeli army when Burshtein recruited her for the film. “When I met her, it was just bingo, and we knew that it wasn’t her being an actress, it’s her being Shira, being that character.” The director continues: “It is not even what she does, it’s more about what she feels. It’s mostly about feelings and feelings and feelings, and that’s international, that’s not religious. This is about life.”

Next, Burshtein is working on a series for Israeli TV, with a loosely translated title of Going Through The Wall, about a woman whose fiancé cancels their wedding, leaving her determined to carry on with the day and find a new groom. It will be another key wedding for her to shoot. “I am all about weddings. I’m all about love,” Burshtein says with a smile.