Avi Nesher's latest film, The Secrets, opens with Naomi (played by remarkable newcomer Ania Bukstein), the young pious daughter of a respected Orthodox rabbi, asking her father if her arranged marriage can be postponed so she can study for a year at a Midrasha in Safed. Her mother has just died. Out of love, he gives his consent.
Settled in the Midrashah, she is drawn to Michelle (Michal Shtamler), a fiery young woman newly arrived from France. The pair are assigned to help a terminally ill older French woman, Anouk (played by French star Fanny Ardant), whose confessions of a tragic romantic past introduce them to a realm of passion they have never heard of before. To help prepare her for death, they secretly study Kabbalah.
In tandem with such mystical endeavours, Naomi and Michelle develop a passionate bond, sparking turmoil. It's a fascinating film, ostensibly a love story about a father's love for God and his daughter, a daughter's love for God and her father, the love between women congregated in celebration of a religious life, and, more controversially, the love between two women.
"Movies are made either to purely entertain or evoke thought and get a discussion going," says Nesher, 56, speaking from his home in Tel Aviv. "And this movie is of the second kind. It means to start an argument."
It's not a film that sets out to critique and reveal Orthodox Jewish life with the fervour of Amos Gitai's Kadosh, Sandi Simcha DuBowski's Trembling Before God, Anat Zuria's Purity or David Volach's My Father, My Lord. Instead, it raises questions while respectfully depicting religious life, an approach that paid off well when it opened, without controversy, at cinemas in Israel in June 2007. It went on to become a major success.
"Strangely enough," says Nesher, who, along with his wife and two children, leads a secular life, "there was no fierce criticism of the movie here in Israel. Perhaps that's because the movie does not say that our secular way of life is better than the Orthodox way of life. There have been movies before that have blatantly critical like Kadosh, which I find almost obscene. With the high divorce rate within secular life, I'm not sure our life is that much better. There's a lot to be said for the Orthodox family, its structure, the bond between children and parents."
The idea for The Secrets first came to him back in 2003 when making Oriental, a documentary about the failed Camp David peace talks.
"I've always been fascinated by how Orthodoxy seems to set the tone on both sides of the fence," says Nesher. "We're familiar with Muslim Orthodoxy as seen with Hamas and Hizbollah, and obviously in Jewish Orthodoxy, women are way behind modern women. People tend to think that the battle in the Middle East is over land or water, but I think it's over social structure, that the last battle is really over women's rights. Because if that changes, then the whole politics of the region will change dramatically, away from the traditional family structure, where the father, the male, dictates everything."
The idea went on hold while he made his 2004 box-office smash, Turn Left At The End Of World, an "ode" to his father, addressing the immigrant experience in Israel. That film behind him, he returned to the idea of a film about young women "quietly rebelling" against Orthodox life, in partnership with British-born Orthodox playwright, Hadar Galron (best known for Mikve). Together, they did extensive research and interviewed over 100 women studying at Midrashot across Israel.
"There's a feminist revolution taking place within the Jewish Orthodox world," Nesher explains. "And I was fascinated by these women who are trying to change the Orthodox structure from within without tossing the baby out with the dirty water. Women who are very devout, religious, serious, committed to a full-scale religious lifestyle, yet they resist the traditional Orthodox approach whereby men run everything. Right now in Israel, you have nine or 10 special places where Orthodox women go to study, and that is the beginning of the revolution."
By the time their research was complete, Nesher and Galron had mastered secretive Midrashah life.
"These young women go to study for one year and then they get married, have kids and become human incubators. But that is not their agenda. The big dream is one day to have a female Orthodox rabbi. This they do not dare say out loud. It's something they dream about quietly. I really find these women extraordinary. They're unbelievably bright. Almost all of them have strong fathers, influential fathers. It's almost as though the fathers are torn between tradition and their affection for their own brilliant daughters."
Nesher's own father, a Romanian-born diplomat, never acclimatised to Israeli life. His mother, a film-lover, came from Russia. Nesher was born in Tel Aviv on December 13 1953 and raised mostly in New York, where he attended yeshivah.
"My family was not religious," he explains. "But when my father was stationed in New York they sent me to yeshivah because they wanted me to maintain my Hebrew. When we were making The Secrets, when we'd need the permission of rabbis to shoot on this site or that site, I'd go and meet them and they thought they were meeting this director of very secular movies from Tel Aviv. And within five minutes, we were talking Talmud. That made everything comfortable."
After yeshivah and military service, Nesher read Soviet studies at Columbia University. Upon graduating, he took film classes and worked as a film critic, before finding early success with films like his directorial debut, The Troupe (1979), and Rage And Glory (1985), about the Stern Gang. The latter attracted Hollywood interest, leading Nesher to spend 16 years in LA, producing, writing and directing films such as Doppelganger (starring Drew Barrymore). He returned to Israel in 2001 and struck gold with Turn Left At the End of The World, which, like The Secrets, features a complex passionate relationship between two young women.
"When we were researching, we met a lot of Orthodox women who are not lesbians, who had their first physical intimacy with another woman."
Despite the insinuation that Naomi and Michelle's relationship is more about female sexual experimentation in the absence of men than lesbianism, the film has nevertheless been picked up by gay and lesbian film festivals which present it, quite justifiably, as a supremely moving coming-out story. Nesher does not reject such a reading of the film, but neither does he endorse it. "I would not dare say that was my intention."
He finds it interesting that such themes did not deter Orthodox communities from seeing the film.
"The ushers would tell me that in the morning shows, you would have a lot of Orthodox men and women sneak in to see the movie. I hate to preach to the converted. I found it really interesting that the movie penetrated deeply into the other side."
Nesher and Galron were also inundated with correspondence. "The girls in the film evoked a tremendous sense of identification. Young Orthodox women wrote to the film's website sharing their stories, it became a big place to pour your heart out."
So does Nesher always hope to make an audience think harder about a topic? "Whenever I make a movie, it has a sort of political or social issue to it, but I hate movies which are just about that. I make movies about people I like and admire."
The Secrets is screening as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival at the Odeon Swiss Cottage on November 12 and 18 (www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk)