Paula’s Story- The Behind the Scenes Journey to 93Queen

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(1/6) ”I had to tell this story”
“I found the story of the film 6 years ago. At the time, I was working on another project about my chasidic uncle and his life struggle with addiction and mental illness, called Following Boruch. After graduating NYU film school and working on other projects in the industry, this was to be my first feature-length film. It was a challenging project in itself and I had also just had my second son. So I was an overwhelming period to say the least.

Anyway, I was looking at Vos Iz Neias one day and I saw this little article that had a picture of chasidish women in lab coats. It included a blurb about this woman Ruchie Freier who was leading an initiative called Ezras Nashim, an all-female volunteer EMT corp. The article mentioned that Hatzalah does not allow women to join their corps. On the bottom, it said, ‘Call Ruchie Freier for more information’ and listed her number. Crazy right?

Three things immediately struck me. The first was that Hatzalah didn’t allow women. I grew up with Hatzalah and it never occurred to me that women weren’t allowed to serve. I was really disappointed in myself that I never noticed this- that women were actively barred from that space. It was a real lightning bolt.

The second was that here were a group of chasidish women who weren’t taking no for an answer. Their response to ‘NO’ was, ‘if you don’t want us that’s fine, we will do our own thing’. I found this so unexpected. Personally, I had never seen chasidish women standing up to the patriarchy in such a bold way by saying we are going to make our own space whether you like it or not.

The third thing that struck me, was the reason that these women started Ezras Nashim. The goal is to provide dignified care to the women in their community. Very often in emergency situations like childbirth, or an older woman falling in the shower– women, who are not used to interacting with men, were being traumatized by being exposed in a vulnerable state to a group of men that are coming to help them. While the men mean well, there are women who have withheld calling for help because they are too embarrassed to have a group of familiar men come into their home and examine them. I read a story about a woman who actually died. She was elderly and hesitated to call Hatzolah with chest pains because her hair wasn’t covered. Having just given birth to my younger son, I really related to that need for women to be able to choose their health care providers and I understood how not having that freedom can affect your healthcare and outcome.

To me, it’s simply about choice and allowing women to be healthcare providers in their neighborhood. How ironic is it that frum women can be EMS workers in secular spaces but not in Jewish ones?

So, I said to myself, ‘Paula, don’t do it.’ I had so much on my plate… but, in the end, I couldn’t shake it. I saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime to capture empowered chasidic women who were actively changing their culture for the better. Furthermore, here was a chance to give frum women a voice, face and platform in both Jewish and secular media. I knew this was it. I had to tell this story. So I took the risk and pivoted.”

(2/6) “Paula to Penina”
“The first thing I did was call Ruchie Freier. I met with her and explained why I wanted to make this film. I told her that I wanted to give chassidic women a voice and representation in media, on their own terms. That there hasn’t been anything like this in mainstream media. I told her how much I believed in her and Ezras Nashim, but I would remain as objective as possible – this wouldn’t be a promo for Ezras Nashim; it would be an honest portrayal of the formation of this groundbreaking corps within the context of this community and the challenges that came along with that.

When I began the process of creating this film, no one wanted to touch stories from the chasidic community. Not the film world; it’s an unpopular community that no one really wanted to hear from. It took a while for me to express the right messaging, to frame it in the right way. On the other hand, while I was asking the secular world to expand their minds and open their thinking about this community, I had to gain the trust of Ruchie and the chasidic women in the film to get them on board to make this movie. I had to explain the importance of representation in media, and putting an authentic chassidic story out there.

The value of speaking up.

It was a catch-22: We had to ask both sides to meet each other in the middle.

As director and producer, you wear many hats. I am responsible for telling the story and everything that comes with that: deciding what to film and making all the choices of how the story will unfold, in this case — I did most of the actual shooting and sound, producing and all the business aspects, fundraising etc. Every film is a start-up.

Throughout the process, I met my producing partner Heidi Reinberg and she came on board. It took a couple of years to get the funding. It took getting organizations like The Sundance Institute, Tribeca, IDA (International Documentary Association) and more to listen.

First I had to go into development, where you get your proposals ready and map it out as best you can. In pre-production, you put together a sample of the film so that you can send it with the proposals. All this needs to be done without funding. All the grant proposals you create are to get funding to support the film. Then there is production – the rest of filming. The final steps are post-production and distribution, which you cannot do without proper funding.

Very few filmmakers have the luxury of waiting to get the funding before starting to film because the story is already happening in real life. I was shooting for two years without funding, as a one-woman crew — however, this turned out to be to my benefit. That was the only way this could have happened. As I was alone most of the time, I was able to make myself hide in the background, and due to the sensitive nature of what I was filming, the more invisible the camera was, the better off we were. I was working in a community where cameras and media are so taboo, and so I needed to be invisible to get the story.

Out of respect, I dressed according to their community standards and Ruchie also wanted me to use my Hebrew name, Penina, so that I would fit in more. The Borough Park Paula, was now Penina.”

(3/6) “Breakthroughs and Roadblocks”

“The game-changing moment was getting co-production with PBS.

At this point, after over two and a half years of filming and footage, we finally had our first breakthrough. I had gotten into the IFP (Independent Film Project) film market, one of the longest-running programs for independent filmmakers – where filmmakers, fundraisers, sales agents, distributors-  everyone comes to see the new projects coming out. You have meetings set up with all different types of industry people. It was the first public foray for “93Queen”.

Until it was finished, I kept everything offline about the film because it could be seen as controversial. It was really hush-hush. Bringing it to the market was great – and we met ITVS- a government-mandated body that’s the funding arm of PBS, and they urged us to apply.

The application was due a week after I gave birth to my third child after a very challenging pregnancy. The film team didn’t think there a point in applying because ITVS notoriously rejects projects on their first try. But, I insisted we try — typing in with one hand, nursing with the other.

A few months later I got a call from San Francisco – ITVS had accepted the film!

We entered into a co-production with ITVS, which was a real gamechanger.

They did something very unusual with us. Usually, they are ‘last money in’, meaning they fill your funding gap. But they loved the project so much they were ‘first money in’. The co-production allowed me to work on 93Queen full-time with an office, pay employees and move forward with post-production and the remainder of filming. While ITVS does not have creative control, I now had people to answer to, paperwork and accountability. All the funding came in after that;  Sundance, Tribeca, IDA, Fork films and more. We suddenly had a tremendous amount of support.

Yet, it didn’t magically get easier process-wise. The edit was extremely difficult. In took way longer than it was supposed to take. There were 200 hours of footage- it was painful, frustrating and long.

This film was the first time I was running my own company. I had to learn how to manage that. I was used to being a director of creativity, but now being the business manager dealing with different personalities, producers, editors, funders- suddenly fell on me and I had to learn entrepreneurship while still maintaining a low profile in the Chasidic world and dealing with backlash. It was a heavy load. But, with the greatest risks comes the greatest reward — or at least that’s what I hoped. Without my husband, I don’t know how I would have managed all that and our children. He really helped me attempt to balance it all. It’s a good thing I thrive off of chaos.”

(4/6) “The ‘It’ Girls”

“Another huge moment, six months or more into the edit, we got into the Hot Docs Pitch Forum, an international and prestigious pitch forum that takes place in Toronto. 15-20 projects are selected from all over the world to pitch to the international documentary community. It represents the best of upcoming documentaries in the world.

We got in (which was shocking in itself) and underwent pitch training, which prepares you for the seven minutes you get to do your pitch including a clip, and then the eight minutes of feedback you receive when you finish. It is hosted in this huge beautiful auditorium, and in the middle of the room is a long table. Sitting at that table are the key funders and commissioning editors from around the world. PBS, HBO, Arte, New York Times, Netflix, Amazon- and around the room are all the observers, press- around 300 people or more. Its like “Shark Tank” for documentaries.

I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat for a week. When we arrived at the forum, we were told we were pitching on the second day, which meant I had to sit and watch a bunch of films pitch before me. The films were really big heavy films, about Syrian refugees, the Libyan revolution, slavery in Pakistan, immigration — big geopolitical stories. I was sitting thinking to myself, “Forget it. How am I going to pitch this little film- how am I going to compete with these heavy hitters?”

The night before I was memorizing and memorizing. The moment came and as soon I got up there, to my surprise, all the anxiety just dissipated– I owned it and the pitch went well. Arte (the PBS of Europe) committed at the table that they wanted to take on this film. It was amazing feedback.

It had been announced when we first got there that the Hot Docs First Look team was going to award a new prize for the top pitches. The top pitch gets $75k Canadian dollars. So, on the last day, they began the awards banquet – and we were standing around not paying attention and all the sudden they announced that the first place winner was ‘93Queen!” Their favorite line was “change isn’t made by the people who leave, it’s made by the people who stay.” It was a feeling that I had never felt before. We won! Out of all these huge international films, they chose the little film about Borough Park.

My producing partner, Heidi, said, “We are doing more to combat anti-Semitism internationally right now by sharing this story.” It was surreal.

Coming out of the Pitch Forum there was a lot of buzz. We went back to the edit room and for a brief and magical moment in time felt like the documentary ‘It’ girls.”

 

(5/6) “Darkest before the dawn”

“The next thing to do was to apply to Sundance. I had a grant from Sundance, and I was also invited as a creative producing fellow to their summit in Utah, on the famous Sundance mountain. Everything was lining up.

At the end of last summer, I also moved to Teaneck from my little apartment in Queens, so at that moment, everything was in flux. Major life changes were occurring while this was all happening.  I was really feeling the pressure. The day of our move I went to the edit room for a few hours on the way to NJ, because I couldn’t afford to miss a full day if we were going to make the Sundance deadline. We were working around the clock.

I felt we were in a really good place. The institute (separate from the festival) felt the cut was very strong and said we were ready to apply. We made the submissions deadline, and then we had to wait. It’s a known thing that you hear from them the week before Thanksgiving. A lot of this is a lobbying game; you need supporters and a lot of good words put in — we had that. As a grantee and part of the Sundance “family”, I had a direct link to the programmers (there are tiers of screeners, so getting to the actual programmers is very difficult). We were in ideal shape.

I started hearing that people were getting calls. I wasn’t getting a call. I was becoming beyond distraught, Sundance was my dream. 

Then, the night before Thanksgiving I got an email from them that I didn’t get in. We were one of the last films they considered. The Sundance Institute send me an email and called about how sorry they were. We were shocked and I cried with them. Thanksgiving was a dark time. I felt like my dream that I had been working towards since 10th grade was dead. I stayed in bed for a while.

And it got harder from there. More rejections came. The edit seemed like it would never end. The trailer came out and the Chasidic community was in an uproar. Ruchie was feeling the pressure. I didn’t know if I would be able to deliver.

“93Queen” does not demonize or sanitize the Chassidic community – it’s nuanced and complex and that can be very uncomfortable for people, especially in the film community. They wanted to see the women leave the community at the end of the film and couldn’t take the risk to open themselves up to this community. The Chasidic community is in no-man’s land — they are one of the few communities that it’s still ok to be openly intolerant of. We live in black and white times, and the film asks you to question and consider, rather than fight. That’s hard for people.

But, then we got into Hot Docs film festival in Toronto – which was very prestigious. Although, it wasn’t where I had envisioned my premiere to be – I knew we still had a chance to make this movie really big. I knew in my bones that another route was beginning to surface.”

(6/6) “Dawn”

“The screenings at Hot Docs were completely invigorating. It was my first time seeing the film on the big screen with a wide audience. The feeling was indescribable — birthing art is very much like birthing actual children. Fear and euphoria in one.

We sold out. I kept on waiting for something to go wrong — a technical glitch, a scheduling faux-pas, but everything went really smoothly. Ruchie, her sister, and mother came for the second screening — their first time seeing it on the big screen. Not only did they LOVE the film but the audience swooned for Ruchie at the Q&A. Hearts and minds on both ends of the spectrum were changing…

Returning from Hot Docs was a whirlwind. Prepping the film for both theaters and broadcast simultaneously, and tying up many loose-ends was a real sprint. We had very little time to get the film into theaters and you can’t just get into to a theater…they have to believe it’s worth it for them to give you a screen. NYC is especially competitive as all other markets watch how it does in NY and then decide whether to pick it up or not. Our top theater pick was the IFC Center in the West Village – an incredible indie arthouse theater with a large marquee, which also happens to be blocks away from NYU Tisch where I started my filmmaking journey. WE GOT IT.

Our SOLD OUT opening night and the subsequent Q&A’s (thus far!) at IFC have been the most gratifying experiences of my life (second to my wedding and each one of my children’s births). There is nothing like showing your work to family and friends in your hometown. The responses from diverse audiences and critics alike have been breathtaking. Ruchie and the women of 93Queen are finally getting the platform and consideration they deserve. One woman told me she had a spiritual experience watching the film. I will remember that forever.  And this just the beginning.

Photo by David Nanasi

Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It kept getting more difficult as time went on. Every time I had a breakthrough, I thought then for sure afterward would be smooth sailing, and then a huge roadblock would come.

The diplomatic dealings with the Chasidic community were difficult for me, internal struggles within the film, and dealing with a group of women who are pushing boundaries and making history is glorious but not without baggage. In the end, though, all the twists turns, rejections, and acceptances led the film to this moment – exactly where it should be. Not getting into to certain festivals allowed our theatrical to take audiences by storm. That would never have happened otherwise. I can finally see the jagged pieces falling into place.

93Queen is about change from within and how communities change from the bottom up, very often from female-led progress. That progress happens slowly and is often messy, but that’s what makes it sustainable. There are many who may disagree with this model of change or with Ruchie’s ideals — personally, I disagree with quite a lot! – but it’s crucial that as we discuss and argue (the goals of good art!), we also support these steps forwards if we want to see more progress in the future. It’s not a zero-sum game. I hope this film allows people to see these women as heroines, friends and most of all just complex human beings like the rest of the world.

Please come see the film this week at IFC through August 2nd! Next up, we open in LA on August 14th. More cities, countries, and dates to be announced! If you would like to arrange a community screening please get in touch. Please follow us on Facebook and check out the website for more details and contact info www.93queen.com.”

 

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.