The Women’s Balcony: An Interview with Screenwriter Shlomit Nehama
By Anna Weinstein.
The Israeli film, The Women’s Balcony, directed by Emil Ben-Shimon and written by Shlomit Nehama, is a comedy/drama about community, old traditions and values, and the power of women to keep all of these together in the face of modern extremism. The story is set into motion when the women’s balcony in an Orthodox synagogue collapses, leaving the rabbi’s wife in a coma, the rabbi in shock, and the congregation in crisis.
This is Nehama’s first screenplay. Though she says she didn’t intend to write a feminist film, she’s grateful that the movie has found such an appreciative audience in women. Ben-Shimon says, “This is a film about brave, strong women. Women who are fighting for their place in Jerusalem – a city sacred to all religions, and for their place in their community and homes.”
To write the first draft of the screenplay, Nehama made a bold decision to leave her job working in Israeli television. Nehama spoke with Anna Weinstein about this decision, the courage and fear involved with venturing on her own, and her initial inspiration for the story.
Tell me about your motivation to write the film. Was there an initial spark of inspiration?
One of my memories that I had early on, when I first started thinking about this film, was me in the balcony of our synagogue in Jerusalem. It was a very small child, and it was very crowded. I have twin brother, and I remember looking down at him – he was downstairs with the men, and I was upstairs with the women – and he would look up and laugh at me.
I remember, I was really mad about it. I used to think, why can’t I be down there, too? He’s my twin brother! There’s a part during a service where the father takes the tallit and puts it on the son’s head and says a prayer – he takes him under the tallit with him. I was so jealous. It was such a warm thing between the father and son, and the girls don’t get to be there. So this was the first thing I started to think about with my idea for the film. Why can’t the girl have this, too?
It’s not terribly common for female screenwriters to find success in Israel, or anywhere for that matter. How does it feel to be a woman and have had this success with your first film?
I feel some kind of victory doing this film. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s just because it’s really difficult. When I started, everyone told me that I had to be ready – that it’s very tough, and people wait for years. They told me that lots of people are waiting in line because of a film they made that was already successful. They told me that these other writers would get the money before me. But it didn’t scare me. I don’t know why, but I went with my gut feeling.
What propelled you to leave your job and pursue this? Were you relying on a gut feeling for that as well?
I wasn’t satisfied with my job. You know, I had a very good job, but because I didn’t work for myself, I didn’t have the final decisions on the projects I developed. On the one hand, I was very connected to everything I did, to every show – I worked a lot in animation. But on the other hand, I didn’t get to do exactly what I wanted to do, so it didn’t feel like my own creation.
It wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to go with my gut. I decided that if I do it on my own, I could give people my script and say, “This is it. If you like it, good. If you don’t, that’s OK, too.” Of course, I can say that now, but back then, I just felt that I had to do it – I just felt that I didn’t want to be there anymore.
Were you scared?
Absolutely. After I left, I started to develop scripts for myself, and nothing looked very attractive. Five months after I left, someone called me to do an office job – this was another job – and I took it. It didn’t last long. After a few months, I thought to myself, this isn’t why I left my job. But I was scared, that’s why I took it. Also, I was scared because the script wasn’t looking very good in the beginning.
When did it start to work, your script?
The script really started to work when I connected it to my own personal story, writing about my childhood community in Jerusalem. That’s when it all came together, and I remember I was relieved then. I knew, okay, it’s going to be a good movie.
The film is so much about women standing up for themselves – about bravery. Did you feel at the time that writing it was an opportunity for you to process your own bravery?
Yes, at some point along the way, I understood that this film is my closing circle with my childhood and with the fact that I left the religion. Never mind the circumstances, but you always feel like a little bit of a failure that you couldn’t make it work, that you couldn’t be a part of the society you are living in. The religion is about right and wrong, and it was too much for me. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to, and I felt so guilty about it, but it wasn’t for me. So yes, this was my big reason to write the film, to close this part of my journey.
Anna Weinstein is a regular contributor to Film International. The first three books in her Focal Press | Routledge book series, “PERFORM: Succeeding as a Creative Professional,” were released February 2017, including Writing for the Screen and Directing for the Screen.