by writer/director Joshua Z. Weinstein
When I was a kid my grandfather ran Reds, a toy store in Brooklyn, and I'd frequently go with him to work. Even then, I found myself fascinated driving through the Orthodox Jewish parts of Borough Park and Crown Heights. The black hats and coats, the long beards and payots, the women in tichel—it all just felt so different from any lifestyle I'd witnessed. After becoming a filmmaker and living near those same areas, I knew I wanted to tell a story about this closed-off, often misunderstood community, while trying my best to understand its inhabitants with nuance and empathy.
I approached making Menashe like it was a New Yorker article: a deep-dive into this world, watching moments so real you couldn’t make them up. I’d visit a shul or mikveh and just chat endlessly with people over instant coffee. Coming from the documentary world, I wanted to my first fiction film to still draw heavily on real life and all its wonderful messiness. I’ve always loved neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief, Pather Panchali and Little Fugitive, and felt that making a movie that captured the daily struggles of the Hasidic community could be enlightening.
I knew that in addition to working with non-professional actors in their native Yiddish, I wanted to make a film that was based on a real person, and meeting Menashe Lustig was a revelation. There’s something where you see how someone's body holds his emotions, and I saw both a profound chutzpah and sadness in this man. I did a test taping and Menashe was captivating in the way where he looks so proud and yet so sad at the same time. There’s just an incredible amount of emotion in him that moved me immediately. Talking more with Menashe about his life story, I learned about the Hasidic community’s informal court system, and how it can impact both kids and parents in rather serious ways. This was the key to understanding Menashe, and to helping retell his story as a film.
During the two years it took us to make this movie, Menashe frequently wondered why anyone else would care about him or his story. Being almost wholly unaccustomed with cinema, it all felt so strange to him. I kept assuring him that even people who were not acquainted with the Hasidic world would see something of themselves in Menashe and his family, and that there was a universality in his life that people would empathize with. But I'm not sure he ever truly believed me. When we premiered the movie at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it was Menashe's very first time in a movie theater. He heard people laugh and cry at things he didn’t think would be funny. But I kept telling him, your life is universal. People in the outside world will relate to this.