When first-time screenwriter Shlomit Nehama wrote The Women’s Balcony, she anticipated that making a universal film would be a losing battle. In order to capture the emotions of the characters and daily lives of a close knit Mizrahi community, she needed to use detail and specificity.
The approach worked and Balcony become the number one film in Israel, receiving raves from international critics for it’s warmth and humor. Inspired by her own upbringing in a close knit community, the film depicts the rise of ultra-Orthodox Judaism after an accident destroys the town’s synagogue. A new, young rabbi effectively bans women entirely by refusing to build a new women’s balcony, forcing the town’s conservative women to fight back against the injustice.
While the war of the sexist is a familiar story, Nehama’s remarkable ability to tell a story this funny and charming (and give great humanity to all her characters) is a major accomplishment.
Lesley Coffin: What motivated you to want to write this film?
Shlomit Nehama: I believe I had to close a circle with my leaving religion at a younger age. I think that every person who leaves religious life or just immigrates somewhere feels some kind of failure. A feeling that you might have left something open, or you didn’t succeed where you were before. This has always disturbed me. I think that through writing the script I managed to understand and explain what disturbed me so much in the religious world and it also reminded me what I loved in it.
Lesley Coffin: When choosing how to tell this personal story, what motivated you to tell it from a comedic perspective? I imagine the story could have been re-framed as a high drama?
Schlomit Nehama: I like comedies the best. My experience in film before writing this script was mainly as a spectator. And this is the way I wrote this... I tried to write a film I would love to watch myself.
Lesley Coffin: Do you believe there are misconceptions from outsiders about how religious extremism comes to these small communities?
Shlomit Nehama: I think the secular people in Israel see the religious people as one. They don’t see the diversity inside the religious world. The oppression of religious pluralism is happening mostly among the more simple and poor communities, people that are easier to manipulate and frighten.
Lesley Coffin: Were there any characters inspired by real people? Where there films which inspired the screenplay’s structure?
Shlomit Nehama: When I started building the characters, I had someone I knew in mind for each of them, mostly family members or people I remembered from my childhood in Jerusalem. But as I progressed in the script, the characters became independent more and more - apart from Aharon (the Gabbai of the synagogue), who still reminds me of my father. As for other movies that inspired me - they were mostly British small town comedies like Waking Ned Devine or The Full Monty. The group of women in the script were inspired also by the women in Sex and the City.
Lesley Coffin: In the selection of Emil Ben-Shimon as the director, do you feel it was helpful to have both a male and female voice telling the story of a gender conflict? How did you collaborate?
Shlomit Nehama: I think Emil did a wonderful job in directing the female characters, starting with finding a talented cast with the perfect look. I wanted a good director for the film and it didn’t matter if it was a man or a woman.
Lesley Coffin: What have been the most surprising responses to the film since it began its successful run in Israel?
Shlomit Nehama: One of the reactions that moved me the most was of an Orthodox woman, a mother of eight children from Jerusalem. She wrote to me that the film shook her world and put a mirror in front of her face. She always felt the prejudice against women, but took it in and the film made her decide to join a feminist group of Orthodox women called “Your Voice,” a group that suffers many incitements in the Orthodox world.
Lesley Coffin: As the film prepares to run in the Unites States, what would you like audiences to consider about the true universal elements of the story?
Shlomit Nehama: It is hard for me to answer this. I am only a storyteller. What I wanted is to tell a story that people will like to hear and through it say a few things that are important for me. The fact that an audience sits for an hour and 36 minutes and listens to me is so much more than I expected.
© Lesley Coffin (5/30/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama
Stills from The Women's Balcony courtesy of Menemsha Films.