By Symi Rom-Rymer
Anat Zuria has made her career exploring the stories of religious women on the margins of their world. Her latest work, The Black Bus, a selection at the recent New York Jewish Film Festival, is no exception. In this probing documentary, Zuria focuses her attention on the wrenching displacement of Sara Enfield and Shulamit Weinfeld, two young women who have left the Jerusalemite haredi world of their upbringing. They may have physically left their ancestral community but they struggle to fully escape its influence. Einfeld, divorced with two young children, is a writer whose blog, A Hole in the Sheet, lays bare her experiences as an ultra-Orthodox woman. Weinfeld is a photographer and law student who left her family only weeks before the shooting of the documentary.
What the film does best is allow these two charismatic and bold women inhabit center stage. Einfeld, like her blog, is a strong presence. Feeling keenly responsible to use her virtual celebrity for good, she opens her home and her life to help other Haredi Jews who are deeply unhappy but unable to leave. Although she has been able to free herself from her past life, she demonstrates that her inner strength comes at a price. At one point, she matter-of-factly exposes her scarred arms to the camera while explaining that cutting herself helps her cope with the darker consequences of her upbringing and self-imposed exile.
Weinfeld, whose sense of abandonment and anger is more fresh, turns her rage outwards and aggressively plants herself in streets or bus shelters in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, forcing those she comes across to engage with her. It is through her eyes that we see the mehadrin, Orthodox buses segregated by gender, that give the film its name. In her dangling earrings and fashionable clothes it is hard to believe that just a few weeks prior she was part of the very community she is now documenting. The passion she brings to capturing her subjects on film suggests that from “the other side,” she is trying to bore into the souls of those she is photographing, to understand why she is no longer one of them.
In interviews, Zuria has said that she made this movie to give Haredi women a voice. To tell the stories that are overshadowed by the men who traditionally speak for them. The film runs into trouble, however, when Zuria becomes more enamored with the idea of film-making than with telling that story. The camera often lingers on a tear-stained face or at eyes staring into the mirror; a gesture meant to be fraught with meaning that ends up feeling exploitative. Moreover, there is one important question that is not addressed: How do these two women survive on their own? It is clear that neither is married nor are in touch with their families. How do they, especially Einfeld, support themselves? And how has Weinfeld, with only her religious upbringing, been able to get into law school? Without these questions answered, it feels as though these two women live their private lives in a world of their own making, somehow untouched by day-to-day realities.
Like Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, The Black Bus paints a poignant picture of those who choose leave the Hasidic community. It is a sobering, yet hopeful reminder of what can be both lost and gained in the search for one’s self. But although these women have forever left the world they knew, they have succeeded in keeping the most important thing, themselves.