M (2018) *** Locarno International Film Festival 2018
Dir: Yolande Zauberman | Doc | Israel/France | 103′
Entering the secret sexual world of Israel’s Hasidic Jewish community feels like a privilege and a revelation in this incendiary, no holds barred documentary premiering here at Locarno Film Festival.
According the findings of French filmmaker Yolande Zauberman a startling number of male kids in this orthodox religious community have undergone rape at the hands of their elders. Gaining unprecedented access to the titular M, aka Menachem, a young Israeli man who we first meet on Tel Aviv beach at night, Zauberman unearths a history of abuse and family dysfunction leading to marriage breakdown that exposes the disturbing reality behind the silent facade of this tight-knit religious enclave. And it’s not just happening in Tel Aviv, Israel. This is a startling story that seems to connect with the narrative of sexual abuse across the ultra religious spectrum from Orthodox Judaism to Catholicism, and possibly beyond.
Speaking in a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish, Menachem tells us how he grew up in Bnei Brak, just outside Tel Aviv. His mother was kind but never particularly affectionate, so when he started to attend Yeshiva (a religious school) and bathe in the mikvah (a cleansing pool) the elders’ attention seemed almost comforting to the young boy, until he realised what was going on. This led to problems with his marriage, and divorce. He now finds the company of Tel Aviv’s transsexuals easier to deal with as there is no emotional involvement. In a car journey with an Arab trans friend, the two compare the Hassidic stricture with being trapped inside the wrong body: both men needed to break away.
A talented cantor and a likeable but clearly troubled soul, Menachem opens up freely to the camera, finding the filming process a cathartic experience, empowering him to seek out his abusive elder, Akiva Katz, so he can obtain some kind of closure. The search for Akiva propels the narrative forward as more and more shockingly naive religious men join the conversation, glad to unburden themselves with their experiences, although many do not want to be filmed..
M is a tough and claustrophobic watch. This is in part due to Zauberman’s decision to film at night and at close quarters. Under the cover of darkness she finds people more relaxed and willing to share their feelings. “Does a woman have genitalia?” asks one young married man. Meanwhile in the background to these spontaneous (unscripted) discussions, orthodox families freely go about their business into the small hours, little kids in tow. This is a self-regulating society that seems locked in the Dark Ages, closeted away from the internet, social media and the modern world.
IN COMPETITION | LOCARNO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018