It took Emil Ben-Shimon 15 years of TV work to get his first chance to direct a feature film, but when the opportunity came with “The Women’s Balcony,” he took comfort in the familiarity of the characters.
“I know these characters from my childhood,” Ben-Shimon, who will not be able to attend the screening of his directorial debut on the closing night of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, said in a phone interview from Israel. “For me, it’s sort of like my mother and her friends.”
He said lead female character in the film, Ettie, played by Evelin Hagoel, is based on his mother. “This was my connection to this story. I feel comfortable with strong women. It’s very natural for me.”
That comfort comes through on screen, where the strong female characters are dominant, and was important behind the scenes because he was working with a female screenwriter, Shlomit Nehama, and female producers.
He and Nehama developed the story of “The Women’s Balcony” together. She brought the idea of a women’s synagogue balcony collapsing to propel the action, and Ben-Shimon brought the desire to tell a story set in a Jerusalem community.
He gained knowledge about the workings of a small shul, as well as inspiration for the main comic-relief character, Aharon (Itzik Cohen), from a grandfather who served as a synagogue caretaker, doing a lot of the little maintenance tasks and handling the big job of rounding up a daily minyan.
Before shooting the film, “we made a lot of trips in this particular neighborhood in Jerusalem,” Ben-Shimon said, emphasizing that the area is packed with “magical streets.”
He wanted “The Women’s Balcony” to show how the influx of haredi communities into such Jerusalem neighborhoods has taken a toll the past 10 to 20 years. People who had a certain comfort with their lives and their level of religious observance are being compelled to change their practices or move away.
“There are certain rabbis who have a lot of charisma and know how to talk and are preaching, and they take the words and have a certain demagoguery,” Ben-Shimon said. “We wanted to say something about that.”
That serious message beneath the laughs sets “The Women’s Balcony” apart from the Aristophanes play to which many observers have compared the film, “Lysistrata,” in which women deny their husbands sex to force them to end a war.
Ben-Shimon said the play is just a comedy about the battle between the sexes, but “we didn’t just want to make a comedy.” Instead, the goal is to develop a full range of emotions while saying something about close-knit communities.
He said the success of the film indicates that the message has been received. “It makes me feel that the stories that I wanted to tell are finding a good place in the hearts of the audience.”
He has been pleasantly surprised that foreign audiences also have appreciated the film — laughing and responding at the proper places.
Now he’s eager to find his next film project. “When my first picture is a success, I don’t want to go back to television.”