On and Offscreen, an Unorthodox Journey for Two Alums

by Joe McGonegal on September 20, 2013

in Media

After making a big life decision–to leave behind the practice of faith in which she was raised, Anna Wexler ’07 developed a keen eye for others going through crises of faith. This awareness is the subject of her first film, Unorthodox.

Wexler’s path since that decision has been quite literally unorthodox. Having left an insular, Orthodox Jewish community behind, she studied brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, then put that aside for a few years to develop, edit, and produce a feature film.

L-R Anna Wexler '07, Nadja Oertelt '08.

L-R Anna Wexler ’07, Nadja Oertelt ’07.

The film’s title makes perfect sense for Wexler, who co-directed it with classmate Nadja Oertelt ’07.

The two conceived of the idea for the film as undergraduates. The premise: three Orthodox Jewish teenagers, at varying levels of commitment to their faith, travel to Israel to explore that faith in practice for a year, with cameras in tow.

Wexler and Oertelt weaved the three teens’ journeys with Wexler’s own reflections in a rough cut over five years ago. But the two aspiring filmmakers found the typical obstacles of editing, post-production, and funding along the way.

After a successful $16,000 Kickstarter campaign and some help from WGBH, they overcame them, and on November 10 the film will premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

Crowdfunding was new to both alumnae two years ago, but they found immediate success.

“What was unexpected was how successful our campaign actually was,” says Oertelt. “It went viral in the modern Orthodox Jewish world and we blew past our goal because of grassroots outreach by our fans…”

Wexler and Oertelt both admire the work of Professor Richard Leacock and of other filmmakers who have trouble disentangling themselves from their subjects.

“Because we were filming our subjects over such a long period of time, we developed real relationships with them and their families, and learned, sometimes with difficulty, that the separation between filmmaker and subject is a very blurry one,” says Oertelt.

Both young filmmakers also credit professors in the Program on Art, Culture, and Technology for supporting them early on.

Unorthodox premiers in a year of great turmoil for the Middle East, a fact not lost on Wexler and Oertelt.

“Because we simply observe our subjects and focus on their internal struggles, the greater geopolitical context of those struggles is writ large,” Oertelt says. “We avoid commenting on the issues [facing Israel] in the film, and people’s opinions about what Unorthodox says about it varies wildly.  I think if the film makes anything clear about Israel, it is that the actual land is immensely powerful to certain communities, and is fundamental to their identities as individuals and communities.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Levinger September 20, 2013 at 11:38 am

Any mention in the film of the power of the land for the other people who live on it, and also find it “immensely powerful”?

Hard to avoid the geopolitical struggles in a place where the land itself is politicized. Is this film (and writeup) intentionally silent on the division of the land by the state?

Josh Levinger
MIT ’07

Reply

Nadja Oertelt September 23, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Hi Josh. Thanks for your comment. The issue of politics in Unorthodox is a difficult one. We wanted to make a film about a religious and cultural phenomenon that is dependent on the relationship between diaspora Jews and the state of Israel, but we didn’t want to make a film explicitly about Israel [whether or not this is possible is up for debate]. Interestingly, screening the film to a variety of demographics has clarified a few things for us in this respect: the film is a Rorschach test. I think your assumption that I am speaking only of certain communities is a good example of this. We avoid commenting on the issue in the film because the issues are obvious. People’s opinions about what Unorthodox says about Israel vary wildly and as documentary filmmakers we feel that means we have dealt with this issue with a great deal of care.

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