Alum’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish background inspires Hasidic horror film

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Photo: Courtesy of Elazar Fine

Elazar Fine '18 makes horror film about a Hasidic community.

By Katiana Hoefle, Deputy Arts Editor

Elazar Fine ‘18 grew up with limited access to film in his Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Watching old Disney VHS tapes at his grandmother’s house and visiting the local movie theater with his uncle inspired Fine to eventually leave his fundamentalist background and develop a passion for filmmaking at Emerson.

Fine is currently in pre-production for The Chosen One, a horror short film he began writing and directing in September 2019 about the experiences of a man leaving the Hasidic community, a sector of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. 

“One of the main tenets of contemporary American Ultra-Orthodoxy is an aversion to pop culture, or anything really from the secular world,” Fine said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “So film is one of the most forbidden or contraband things that exists.”

On March 2, Fine launched a crowdfunding campaign for the film on the fundraising website Indiegogo but temporarily stopped advertising due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The campaign finished with 39 backers and raised $2,722 of its $12,065 goal. Fine said that he hopes to relaunch with a smaller goal after the coronavirus crisis passes.

“We’re still obviously welcoming any contributions that people want to make, but we don’t want to be too aggressively asking people for money during the current crisis when money can be better spent on more important things,” Fine said.

Fine plans to complete the short film and showcase it at higher tiered film festivals to gauge potential opportunities for transforming it into a feature film.

The Chosen One will begin with a man sitting on the floor, impulsively shaving his beard and sidelocks. Over the course of the night, he will experience a transformation back into his unshaven self—symbolically who he was as a part of the Hasidic community —as his beard and sidelocks continue to grow back no matter how many times he shaves them. Eventually, the man mutilates himself in an attempt to get rid of the beard and shed his background.

“Taking this big step and leaving a community that you grew up in takes a lot more work than the simple act of shaving your beard,” Fine said. “When you go out into the world, there’s a ton of acclimating that you have to do, there’s a tremendous amount of culture shock, and there’s no shortcut.”

During his high school years, Fine attended a Yeshiva—an orthodox Jewish boarding school—in upstate New York where he studied ancient religious texts every day from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Inspired by his love of writing and filmmaking, Fine decided to leave Yeshiva as well as the Ultra-Orthodox community he grew up with and earned his GED. He then studied at UMass Amherst for a year before transferring to Emerson to major in visual and media arts. 

“Going from an all male religious school in upstate New York where you are not interacting with anybody else to a coed floor at UMass Amherst was very, very jarring and that goes into the film as well,” Fine said.

Fine did not grow up in a Hasidic community like the film’s main character, but drew upon his experience and the culture shock he felt after leaving his Yeshiva boarding school when writing the script.

“I didn’t have that moment where I shaved my beard, but I had the moment where I sat in a non-kosher restaurant for the first time or took my Yarmulke off in public,” Fine said. “The best way that I could think of to visually represent what that feeling is in that first step outside is a Hasidic man choosing to shave his beard.”

After attending Emerson Los Angeles and graduating in 2018, Fine stayed in L.A while working as an assistant for two different production companies. Fine began writing his screenplay in September 2019 before quitting his job at the end of the year to dedicate all of his time to The Chosen One.

The majority of the film’s crew are Emerson graduates, including one of the producers, Jacob Bridgman ‘19, who does not come from a Jewish background—a detail he said presented some challenges when scoping out locations and actors for the film.

“I could never know [some things], like what sorts of things are permitted in an Orthodox household as opposed to a conservative Jewish household or reformed Jewish household,” Bridgman said in a phone interview from L.A. “[Fine and I] are in constant contact about what is authentic and what sorts of things we have to procure to keep the film authentic.”

Fine said the film has already received pushback from the Ultra-Orthodox community, and he expects more.

“My hope is that people grant us some good faith and believe that we’re [not] coming at this from a point of view of someone who’s angry or resentful,” Fine said. “It really is about an individual’s experience and how difficult it can be to just make a choice like this where you decide that everything you’ve known in your life really isn’t for you, and you don’t have a place there, and you need to sort of look out into the larger world to find where you belong.”

The film’s lead actor, Luzer Twersky, who left a Hasidic community to pursue acting, disagreed with the pushback against the film, saying that it sheds no bad light on the Hasidic community.

“It’s completely inoffensive,” Twersky said in a phone interview from L.A. “It is [a] story about a person who is dealing with an identity crisis. It happens to be set in a Hasidic community, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a catholic, it could be Scientologists, it could be anything.”

The film, Fine said, makes a deliberate effort to be representative of the Ultra-Orthodox community, in contrast to previous American films centered around Hasidic characters, which he said lack authenticity.  

“We do want people like me, people like the actors in our film, who have come out of that world or people who are still in that world of Ultra-Orthodoxy to feel represented in a way that they haven’t been previously,” Fine said.

Fine hopes that people with no affiliation to the Hasidic community will watch the film and empathize with the people from that background. 

“As opposed to a lot of films that involve Ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic characters that tend to be very introductory and want to hold their audience’s hands as they introduce them to this culture that they’re not familiar with, we sort of are trusting our audience to be able to pick up on things quicker and therefore allowing ourselves to take a genre approach to this material that you very rarely see,” Fine said.

Bridgman said the film’s authenticity is what will set it apart from other films about the Hasidic community.

“It’s not a bunch of non-Jewish people making a story about Hasidic Jews,” Bridgman said, “It is a formerly orthodox man telling the story from the community he came from.”