In March’s Online Short, filmmaker Stacey Menchel Kussell follows four dancers as they rehearse in the studio. Their preparation is prayer-like, full of repetition, meditation, ecstasy, and reflection, reinforcing the sacredness of daily practice. Set to poetry by Black and Jewish spoken word artist Aaron Samuels, Ritual’s text reflects on his family memories of Passover, an ancient Jewish tradition that celebrates freedom from oppression. Ritual examines the tenacity and resilience that motivates us to keep our traditions and honor our histories, no matter our heritage or creed.
JFI will host a live-stream screening of the film with director Stacey Menchel Kussell taking questions in the comments on Facebook Live on Tuesday, March 6 at 12:30PM PST. Click here to set a reminder to watch the livestream.
Read a Q&A with director Stacey Menchel Kussell below:
JFI: What inspired you to make this film?
Menchel Kussell: I had been interested in exploring the concept of ritual for a long time, especially rituals that are manifested physically. I thought about dancers in their everyday practice and considered how repetition and consistency created feelings of order, calm, and enlightenment in both artistic and spiritual ways. The way a dancer prepares their body to move has the same precision, pattern, and intention as the preparation of a Seder.
I had the idea for the film after attending an artist retreat by Asylum Arts, a network for Jewish artists around the world. Here I met poet Aaron Samuels and was inspired by a presentation that he gave showcasing poetry in film. I commissioned him to create an original poem that related to ritual and one that could connect specifically to Jewish tradition. He wrote “How to Return,” a poem about his dual Black and Jewish identity and his memories from Passover. I selected three stanzas from this poem and commissioned another Asylum alumnus, Carlos Metta, a musician and sound designer from Mexico City to set the poetry to music. Asylum Arts gave me a grant to help fund this collaboration.
“The way a dancer prepares their body to move has the same precision, pattern, and intention as the preparation of a Seder.”
Once the soundtrack was set, I cast four dancers and filmed them improvising in the studio, asking them to reflect on the poem and their own personal rituals. It was an amazing experience because the project really evolved during the process. What started as a single idea about ritual broadened in scope to express a variety of artistic voices and experiences.
JFI: What was your greatest challenge during the filmmaking process?
Menchel Kussell: The biggest challenges during the process are also what made it a career expanding project for me. I was as much the choreographer as I was the director of Ritual. I also had not commissioned original poetry or music before. The creation of the soundtrack was done remotely as Aaron and Carlos live on different sides of the globe.
JFI: Any thoughts you’d like to share about screening this film in a Jewish context?
Menchel Kussell: Ritual celebrates the passion of tradition and provides new and fresh perspectives on Passover. The poetry takes us through Aaron’s specific experience, and the film more generally empowers the audience to honor their heritage and to continue the universal fight for freedom.
JFI: What film/media has inspired you lately?
Menchel Kussell: I have a three-year-old daughter, so I feel like I am always watching kids shows like Thomas & Friends and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. But as for more grown up media, I recently watched Genius, a mini-series about Albert Einstein, and found it to be really inspiring. The production and performances were incredible, and the writers did a fantastic job balancing the historical and personal elements of the scientist’s life.
JFI: What do you do when you’re not filmmaking?
Menchel Kussell: When I am not filmmaking I like to enjoy New York, take dance class, and hang out with my husband and daughter at the playground.
JFI: Lastly, gefilte fish: delicious, or disgusting?
Menchel Kussell: Gefilte fish is not my favorite, but it can be delicious if it is made by the right person.
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.