After moving to the area, I could not help being drawn to the people of Stamford Hill – home to Europe’s largest Haredi community. I was struck by their amazing appearance and dedication to the faith. It seemed a bizarre juxtaposition in the middle of trendy Hackney. Fairly soon, I realised I wanted to make a film about someone making the leap between those two worlds.
For a young man growing up speaking Yiddish, learning primarily only about his religion at school, with no TV at home and an arranged marriage on the cards, it could be quite disorientating if he chose to enter a secular English-speaking world full of cultural references, skilled jobs and dating.
The research was a long process of gradually getting to know people. I began meeting members of the community, and also tracking down some of those who had left it, known as OTD (“off the derech” or path). Believe it or not, I also went ‘undercover’ a few times, to synagogues and meetings, sometimes successfully, sometimes very embarrassingly found out.
I developed the script for Samuel-613 both with anonymous insiders and OTD leavers, writing and rewriting scenes based on their shared experiences, getting sections translated into Yiddish. Director Josh Appignanesi came on-board as an executive producer, helping me to tighten the story in a dramatic way and offering lots of practical advice from his experience.
The magazine Dazed & Confused had seen one of my previous films, liked the culture clash idea and commissioned the script. Pre-production headed by producer Cheyenne Conway began and it was important to me to cast some Hasidic people as non-professional actors, with part of the dialogue in Yiddish to give it an authentic flavour. We filmed on location in a large Hasidic home so everything you see is how it often is.
While filming in Stamford Hill, the locals often mistook our actors for real Hasidim, checking whether they were ok or if we were hassling them, which was a pleasing sign to the makeup and costume department.
Once the shoot was finally over it was time to face facts that I’d borrowed a large amount of money to make the film, and that if we didn’t get more funding to complete post-production then it might never see the light of day.
UK Jewish Film came to the rescue and after pitching the project we were awarded The Pears Foundation Short Film Fund. From then onwards, the UKJF were there for us, giving invaluable support and advice, from a pickup shoot through the editing stages until the eventual cinematic premiere at their festival.
Since the film has been released online there’s been a great deal of positive feedback, including from people with a Hasidic background. There’s been an unexpectedly high number of YouTube hits and a number of private messages from people who can relate to the story.
There have also been some who have questioned whether this is an anti-religious film. That was never my intention. I just wanted to approach an important social issue in an interesting and artistic way. Saying that, I’m sure not all OTD outcomes are as dark or surreal as my story. I hope you enjoy.