In January’s Online Short, filmmaker Craig Schattner takes us inside a gym for Orthodox women in New York, where notions of strength are measured in terms of perseverance rather than religious piety. Watch the film and read a Q&A with director Craig Schattner below:
Dir. Craig Schattner, 2017, USA, 7 min., English
JFI: What inspired you to make this film?
Schattner: I was at a work lunch in early January and someone pulled out their phone to flip through Facebook — as we do — and scrolled over a video of a woman squatting an impressive amount of weight. She was dressed head to toe while doing it. I’ve gone under the bar before and I can tell you, it’s hard enough to get the right form under that sort of pressure, without the distraction of extra layers. It just made me think about this woman and what exercise must mean to her life to align it with her religion.
Whether you’re religious or not, most of us can turn it off when we go to the gym, and run or lift in Nike gear or what-have-you. But in this case, religion seemed to be a part of the weightlifting process. So I had to reach out to that woman, whose name is Vicki. Vicki put me in touch with Inna, the head of the gym, and once I discovered that the gym is predominantly Orthodox Jewish women and their families, and she started a barbell club just for the women, I had so many questions. As one of ten Jewish kids in my high school class of 500, I wasn’t exposed much to the culture. But exercise is something I know, and the mix of religion and exercise, especially focused on the women in this culture, was a topic I couldn’t ignore.
“A lot of what I had read about women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism related to traditional matriarchal roles. I was searching for a story about oppressed women using weightlifting to break free from religious and gender stereotypes. But that was so far from actuality.”
JFI: What was your greatest challenge during the filmmaking process?
Schattner: While there were some logistics hurdles related to filming on Shabbat and being a man during women-only gym time, the gym and the women I filmed were extremely understanding and accommodating. The more challenging aspect of the filmmaking process was getting over my own bias as the interviewer. A lot of what I had read about women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism related to traditional matriarchal roles. I was searching for a story about oppressed women using weightlifting to break free from religious and gender stereotypes. But that was so far from actuality. The women were fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives, as religious women, but the weightlifting wasn’t about breaking free from stereotypes as much as it was about finding their happy place. And that’s something we can all relate to. And the motherhood angle for mothers, and religious duties for those of us who make religion a part of our lives.
So this bias I had, because I went in wanting to tell one story, was a hindrance in the beginning when I started the interview process. But by the time filming was over and I was editing, it was clear the story was different. It was fascinating for a new documentarian like myself.
JFI: Any thoughts you’d like to share about screening this film in a Jewish context?
Schattner: I think viewing the film as either a secular or non-secular Jew makes for an entirely different experience. If the Orthodox Jewish culture is unfamiliar to you, you may see these women as doing something revolutionary. If you come from an Orthodox community or are familiar with one, you may simply see these religious women as your friend or neighbor with an atypical workout routine. As the filmmaker, I came at the subject from a male secular Jewish angle. I had my assumptions about Orthodox women’s roles in the family and community and these were shattered after spending time with Inna and the women at her gym. I hope the Orthodox community understands the ignorance I brought into the project, and can appreciate that I came out with more profound appreciation of the culture and gender dynamics. These misunderstandings about Orthodox Judaism, I believe, are common, so I hope the film can be entertaining as well as eye-opening for other secular Jews like me.
JFI: What film/media has inspired you lately?
Schattner: On a plane last week I caught the documentary Score and loved it. It’s about some of the most well-known film composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer and how essential music is to one’s film experience. Think of all the iconic music from all of these iconic movies like Rocky or Star Wars or Jaws. It was a reminder that anything in the filmmaking process can be that tipping point that turns the film from something great to something memorable, so you can’t overlook any one part.
JFI: What do you do when you’re not filmmaking?
Schattner: When I’m not filmmaking, you’ll catch me walking or biking to some cheap and delicious Manhattan restaurant or numbing my brain with Friends reruns.
JFI: Lastly, gefilte fish: delicious, or disgusting?
Schattner: Delicious, but only with the white horseradish.
Each month, the Jewish Film Institute presents a new free short film to watch online from emerging voices in Jewish documentary, narrative and experimental filmmaking, accompanied by an interview with the film’s director. To watch more JFI Online Shorts, visit the archive of free films here.