'If You Can't Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em': Documenting a Controversial All-Female Hasidic EMT in '93Queen'
"If the gatekeepers don't let you in, find an opening somewhere else."
When Paula Eiselt first came across an article in an online Yiddish publication about a group of Hasidic women forming an-all female EMT corps (Ezras Nashim), she was struck as if by lightning. Firstly, because Eiselt had grown up in a neighborhood that was serviced by Hatzolah, the existing Hasidic emergency medical organization, "but it had never occurred to me that Hatzolah actually banned women,” Eiselt told No Film School.
Secondly, Eiselt, who identifies as an Orthodox Jewish woman, had never seen that type of bold behavior from Hasidic women like the Ezras Nashim leader, Rachel “Ruchie” Freier. “Here was a group of Hasidic women who were not taking no for an answer. They were actually being quite defiant, saying, ‘If you're not going to let us in, we're going to do our thing.’” Eiselt knew something important was happening and subsequently decided to capture it.
The result is her feature documentary 93Queen, playing now at the IFC Center in New York and in Los Angeles starting August 15. Eiselt sat down with No Film School to talk about filming with respect to Hasidic modest tenants, being a one-woman band in a changing story, and making a film that starts a conversation.
No Film School: How did you reach out to the people in the film and what did it take to gain their trust?
Paula Eiselt: It's funny because Ruchie's number was just on the page I read, on the internet, like "Call Ruchie if you want to learn more!” Great! So that's how I literally got in touch with her. She agreed to meet with me, and the fact that I am Orthodox was a huge deal. There aren't many female Orthodox filmmakers who also are in the mainstream film industry and occupy both worlds at the same time. Because I was able to bridge that gap and understand these women from an insider perspective was, first and foremost, the main thing about getting access.
I was very clear to Ruchie that I am not Hasidic—I'm modern Orthodox—although that's another conversation. I knew enough that I would be able to make her comfortable. For example, if someone's knee was uncovered, I would know to take that out of the final cut. I wanted her to know that I really understood the modesty laws and because they knew that I was sensitive to that, it made them comfortable being on camera.
Of course, even though that speaks to the modesty tenants, film and media is still taboo. Regardless of who I am, it still was a very big hurdle to be represented in the secular world, potentially. The thing that really sold Ruchie (aside from my sensitivity) was that I said to her that the Hasidic community is not really represented in the media. The Hasidic community is so insular that media isn't allowed in. Because of this, the stories that are told are from an outsider's perspective are often very stereotypical stories. It's this cycle. If you don't let media in, then they tell the story for you, and you're not going to like it.
I said, "You know, there's just so much negativity out there about the Hasidic community. There's a lot to not like. And if you disagree with those stereotypes, you need to tell people who you are or else no one's going to know that people like you and all these other women exist. They think that you're all oppressed and you're invisible. If you don't feel that way, you need to come out and say that." That really struck her. She wanted to do it, to show another side of her community.
"It's this cycle. If you don't let media in, then they tell the story for you, and you're not going to like it."
NFS: Once you got Ruchie on board, was she the puzzle piece that enabled the restthe of women to be a part of the film?
Eiselt: I definitely could not have done it without her; her support was very important. However, not all of the [Hasidic] women are supportive of her. There still were some women who just didn't want to do it. We really kept the project under wraps for quite a while, even when we participated in the Hot Docs pitch forum a few years ago. We had to request a press embargo because I didn't want them to get wind that this was happening. I didn't want attention from the public community.
I really had to be very careful with everything I did, from the way I was filming, to who I was talking to and what I was saying about the film. I shot it as a one-woman crew for the majority of it. That was the only way to do it.
NFS: What was your one-woman crew like? How did you manage?
Eiselt: It was really very barebones. It was just me, and I had, in the beginning, a Canon 7D, Fs100, a Canon C300, and my own sound stuff. It was really just very guerrilla style. It was constantly frenetic, because as you see in the film, Ruchie does not stop. She has that energy that keeps going, going, going. That's how the community is. Nobody stops. There's no downtime. That's how I had to film. I was jumping from one thing to the next. The action went up to the last second. It was a very frenetic experience. Time passed quickly, and I was basically alone for most of it.
But because I was able to blend in—I dressed a certain way and used my Hebrew name—I was really able to be as invisible as a filmmaker could be. On some of the last shoots, I did have other DPs helping. If it was to film all women, then I would have a female cinematographer, which was great all around, because we loved keeping this as female-empowering and focused, crew-wise, as possible. For the B-roll stuff that looks really, really pretty, I had other DPs work on that too, but for the heart and meat of the film. the whole story really, it was just me.
"Ruchie called me and said, 'I don't know if this is of interest to you, but I'm going to run.'"
NFS: In the film, criticism and pushback from mostly male members of the Hasidic community comes in the form of print, either in letters, or emails, or over social media. Did you know that those words would be things that you would incorporate into the story?
Eiselt: That's a really good question. The way a lot of opposition works in the Hasidic community and the Orthodox community is very under the table. No one will come on the street, except for [that one guy in the film]. You won't get a lot of in-person heckling like that. You'll get it in letters and in comments. That's really how media is disseminated, through WhatsApp, through a lot of the comments. I noticed early on that this was where Ruchie was getting the heat, and that's what was really informing opinions. So I started saving all those things, and I had a treasure trove of all that stuff that was happening online.
As you saw, Hatzolah wouldn't speak to me. We thankfully, filmed one guy [without showing his identity] and it was great to have that perspective. But a lot of how opposition really goes in the Hasidic community is through those devices. I knew that, and I saved a lot of those along the way, to be able to show the opposition.
NFS: Having filmed this way, capturing footage as the story progressed, was the edit a challenge? Did you know when the story was complete?
Eiselt: The edit took so long, over a year. It never, ever ended because there was so much footage, over 200 hours! And then, of course, there was Ruchie's surprise run for NYC Criminal Court judge. That was something that Ruchie called me about, after the main story was shot. I was done. Ruchie called me and said, "I don't know if this is of interest to you, but I'm going to run." And I said, “Oh yeah, that is pretty interesting.”
How much of the judge story to include was a big editing discussion we had, How much of each woman to put in, how much logistics to put in? There was also the context regarding the community. How much do I have to tell people about the Hasidic community? Because people need to understand it but I also don't want to over-contextualize and make it anthropological.
"I dressed a certain way, I used my Hebrew name, I was really able to be as invisible as a filmmaker could be."
Eiselt: There is a sensitivity there. These are Hasidic women who do not know media very well. Ruchie became a public figure. There are many ethical considerations. There were so many heavy, heavy discussions in the editing.
I set out to make something that was nuanced and complex, and as much without judgment as I could. I tried to keep this critical and objective while also remaining true to their voices. I hope this is a conversation starter.
NFS: The music in the film has a very distinct sound. What was the strategy with the score?
Eiselt: The music is this fantastic collaboration between Laura Karpman, who's an amazing world-renowned composer (literally a genius) and Perl Wolfe, who was the lead singer of this former all-Hasidic rock band called Bulletproof Stocking. The first day I started making 93Queen, I was like, “I need Perl to do the music in some way!”
It was just so organic that she's giving Hasidic woman a voice, literally. Women don't sing publicly in the Orthodox world, they sing for women and for their families but not publicly. Perl is singing a lot of these traditional Yiddish and Hebrew melodies that usually men sing. So along with this empowering story, you have women telling it, almost as a group chorus, guiding you through it. By using the traditional male melodies in the music, we’re flipping that very male space on its head as well.
NFS: Given your background, what would your advice be to others based on what you’ve learned making 93Queen?
Eiselt: Take risks, especially if you're a female filmmaker. Take a risk because it might fail, but the reward can much greater. Go where you're wanted, as the people who are going to support you and believe in you are going to take you much further than the people who you're trying to win over (who aren't really interested).
Take very seriously the people who want you. Take part of your target audience very seriously. Don't dismiss them. If the gatekeepers don't let you in, find an opening somewhere else. Make them sorry that they didn't let you in, rather than keep trying to bang on the same door.
NFS: There’s a line in the documentary where Ruchie inverts the famous saying, "Well if you can't join ‘em, beat ‘em."
Eiselt: Yes. Print that! That is literally the mantra of this film.