Feminism is Not One Size Fits All: An interview With the Director of ’93Queen’by Interview by Brie Stimson February 1, 2019
Paula Eiselt: The film is … a story about women’s empowerment in a neighborhood you least expect to find it and more elaborately it’s a story about a group of Hasidic women who started the first all-female ambulance corps in the U.S. And the leader of that group called Ezras Nashim is Ruchie Freier, who also, over the course of the film, becomes the first Hasidic woman elected into public office in the U.S.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Oh wow.
PE: Yeah. Spoiler.
The story of the film is the ups and downs of how these women led by Ruchie formed and launched this ambulance corps [in Borough Park, Brooklyn], despite a lot of opposition from the all-male corps called Hatzolah. As well as some community leaders and how the women themselves react to stepping out of traditional roles to launch this groundbreaking effort.
SDJJ: How did you get involved?
PE: I found the story about six years ago. I was perusing this online Orthodox website … and I came across a group of Hasidic women who were starting this ambulance corps because the existing corps, Hatzolah, did not allow women. So as I read that, two things immediately struck me. The first was that Hatzolah did not allow women. I grew up … with Hatzolah, this Orthodox ambulance corps and it never occurred to me that women were excluded. I didn’t notice. So I was really disappointed with myself and just shocked that women were actively banned from serving. And the second thing that struck me was that here was a group of Hasidic women who were not taking no for an answer who were saying ‘if you don’t let us in, we’re going to do our own thing’ and that was really extraordinary to me. I had never seen Hasidic women take such a stand against the establishment in the community.
SDJJ: How is this story relevant? Do you see it fitting into the #MeToo movement in any way?
PE: Yes, I call it like a Hasidic variation of the #MeToo movement. And what I mean by that is … this is part of a universal story of women’s empowerment and feminism that is erupting stronger than ever all over the world. These are women who are creating space for themselves in a place where there was no space for them.
It doesn’t come from outsiders telling them they’re backwards, it comes from a self realization that it’s their responsibility to clean this up … So I do very much see this as a part of the national/international progressive movements of change and feminism.
SDJJ: Besides the symbolic reasons for creating Ezras Nashim, I would imagine there are practical ones as well.
PE: Totally … There’s a real need for this because in a community that is so segregated by gender, these women don’t interact with any men outside their family … So it could be as many as 10 men, at least several, that they know coming into their home and seeing them in very compromised positions. And women have been left very traumatized by that …. especially in birth and other really personal and revealing situations to the point that there’s actually – women have died because they were so embarrassed and hesitant to call for help that they waited. And it was too late. So having this goes actually across culture and religion. There are many women worldwide who would rather have a female provider, whether it’s another cultural thing, whether it’s just common comfort that they want a woman, whether these women have been traumatized by rape or domestic violence, just don’t feel comfortable with a man. There’s lots of reasons why women will call another woman more readily than a man but especially in the Hasidic community.
SDJJ: A women’s division seems like such an obvious solution.
PE: That’s what everyone says, like it’s a no-brainer. If it’s so segregated why don’t they have separate EMS, and really these women have been trying. The original founders have been trying to get in for 30 years. When Hatzolah was first founded, there was supposed to be a women’s division that was part of it and 300 women were trained and at the last minute the Rabbis came out and said no women, you can’t do this.
And they’ve been quietly trying for decades to get in and it wasn’t until Ruchie Freier made one last attempt to get in, really tried. And when the door was shut in her face, she said she’s not going to leave it like this. So what it comes down to, I believe, is it’s power. Hatzolah is an outlet for a lot of men in the community. They’re looked upon as heroes because they are. They save lives; there’s a lot of clout. And once you have women going into that space it becomes a lot less cool. They want to keep it male for just really misogynistic reasons. There is no logical reason for it.
SDJJ: Has Hatzolah ever had to answer for why they won’t allow women?
PE: There’s never a straight answer … The most common one is women aren’t capable, That’s what it is. They’re not able, they’re not fast, Ruchie was told she’ll have blood on her hands if women serve because they won’t be able to respond to calls fast enough. So you have the range there.
SDJJ: Was it difficult making the film?
PE: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So it took over five years to make. I shot the bulk of it myself because that was the way to make everyone comfortable and gain access to the community and the way I did gain access was that I’m Orthodox, I grew up in an Orthodox community so I understand, to an extent, a lot of the modesty traditions and promised to uphold those and shot in a way that was dignified for the women.
Ruchie and the women said they weren’t happy with the way media portrays their community, so I said, ‘If you don’t like it, you have to give them something else. You have to give them another story and I’m going to tell the story from within. It’s from your voice, you have the platform. You tell us the story rather than having media tell it for you from an outsider perspective.’ So I really sought to make a film from within about change from within, but it was really, really difficult on many levels. I had to convince a community that is very skeptical of media to let me in. That was, like I said, really, really not easy.
I am a filmmaker that happens to be Orthodox, but I went to NYU film school. This is my profession and the Hassidic community is not on the top of the list … so to convince the film industry … to support this film about empowered Hasidic women who don’t leave at the end was very challenging and in a way I wasn’t pleasing anyone. I wasn’t in the Hasidic community … and I was … pointing to flaws in Hatzolah, which was not a popular thing to do because they’re the crown jewel … But, in the end, I stuck to the story, to my vision and I’m really proud … They had support from every major film institution: Sundance, Tribeca, all of them. PBS came on as a co-producer and everyone really saw the story for the amazing story that it is and thankfully Ruchie and all the women are thrilled with how it came out. It shows a really honest portrayal of the story. It doesn’t glorify anything and it doesn’t demonize. It’s what it is.
SDJJ: What do you hope audiences take from the film?
PE: I hope they do see this community in another light, in a more human way on a more basic level, especially the women – that these are people, despite what stories come out of this community. These are regular people who wake up every day. This is what they’re born into and they’re just getting by like everyone else.
So I hope it humanizes it to that extent, and I also hope that people see the efforts and the accomplishment of the women as part of the larger story of feminism and that feminism is not a one size fits all … What feminism looks like in Borough Park is not going to look the same way that feminism looks like in Manhattan or San Diego or wherever else. It morphs. It evolves. This is what it looks like there, and that change is slow, but we need to embrace small steps and embrace this if we want to see greater change. So these are really the main things and, of course, to be inspired by not giving up. Ruchie and these women, they persevered. If you persevere, you will get where you need to go.
SDJJ: Is Ezras Nashim more accepted now?
PE: They’re getting known and more accepted. They’re actually on their wait to getting their first ambulance, which was really nice. The film really helped with that. We had impact screenings for members of FDNY and for different hospitals in Brooklyn who were not helping them because Hatzolah was blocking anyone to help.
They are doing really well and expanding to other communities. So I think it is more accepted. Once they get this ambulance it will be a big step, but it’s now gone from this little story in Borough Park to a global platform.