'M': Film Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Problematic yet fascinating.

French filmmaker Yolande Zauberman's documentary investigates sexual abuse in an ultra-orthodox community in Israel.

The documentary is not only hard to Google — if you just use the title — but it is also hard to describe. Winner of a special jury prize in Locarno, it investigates the sexual abuse of children in the ultra-orthodox Haredim community in Israel through the story of Menachem Lang, a now grown-up singer with the horrible nickname “the porno kid.” Shot on the fly with apparently zero interest in aesthetics by French director Yolande Zauberman, much like her smudgy, shot-on-the-street documentary Would You Have Sex With an Arab? from 2011, this is a film that’s at once incredibly vague about a lot of details yet quite elucidating about the larger picture of systemic abuse and the repression that has kept these scandals hidden from the outside world. It should appeal to Jewish festivals and broadcasting platforms but will have a hard time finding a wider breakout because of its do-it-yourself approach to filming.  

Lang grew up Hasidic but ran away from his rather closed community in the hermetically closed community of Brei Bnek at age 20. His beautiful singing voice made him a favorite during religious ceremonies, but his childhood was undone by sexual abuse from three men that started at age 7, if not earlier. Lang recounts part of his life story while Zauberman, acting as her own cinematographer, follows him back to Brei Bnek for the first time in over 10 years. Years ago, one of the rapists confessed to his crimes while secretly being filmed, which shocked Israel when it was finally broadcast, though Zauberman doesn’t include the footage and it’s not entirely clear whether that man is the same man Lang wants to confront at his home in this new documentary. What Zauberman’s role is in this possible confrontation, which finally never quite materializes, is unclear. Indeed, more generally speaking, the role of the offscreen director in staging or soliciting the things that she films is never made explicit, which makes some of the things that occur difficult to judge.  

That said, the various (random?) adult men that Lang encounters on his nightly tours of his childhood neighborhood all seem quite open about the fact they were abused by older men when they were younger. The protagonist even speaks to a perpetrator who worked up the courage to go and apologize to his victim for what he had done and who underlines it’s a vicious circle that just keeps repeating itself until someone manages to break it. 

If anything emerges from the various conversations with the on-camera but otherwise unidentified individuals from Brei Bnek, it is that sexuality and religion are terrible bedfellows. One man doesn’t seem to understand what lesbianism is, while another suggests sex should exclusively be had on Shabbat and only to have kids. Still another blames Lang: "Why did you let yourself be touched?" Repression and ignorance thus create an environment in which sexual abuse can run rampant because human sexuality isn’t tailored to those kinds of restrictions, though this particular conclusion is something that one has to gather oneself from the material in a piecemeal manner. What does come through loud and clear is that sexual abuse is apparently widespread and self-perpetuating in this particular community, while few people dare to talk about it openly in a way that might shame the (often powerful) perpetrators and put a stop to it.

M is named, one assumes, after the Fritz Lang film, though here, too, it's confusing; M is the perpetrator there but here M is also the first letter of the name of Zauberman's protagonist, who is a victim. While it’s hard to put together a full picture even of Lang’s own family history, despite his conversations with family members on camera, the fact that most of his siblings left the religion speaks volumes about how what should have been a safe, healing and inspiring environment probably felt so toxic that the only solution left was to fully turn one’s back on it and leave.

The documentary as a whole is thus a curious proposition, lacking an enormous amount of detail that would make the many individual cases understandable. Yet Zauberman and editor Raphael Lefevre do manage to suggest how a lot of the crimes and the associated hurt are systemic and almost impossible to escape unless one makes a clean break (an option, it has to be noted, that’s not really open to children until they can be fully independent). This suggestion is, of course, heartbreaking and the film derives most of its raw power from the sheer scope of the problem in this religious and thus supposedly morally upright community. 

Production companies: CG Cinema, Phobics
Director: Yolande Zauberman
Producer: Charles Gillibert 
Director of photography: Yolande Zauberman
Editor: Raphael Lefevre
Sales: Indie Sales
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

In Yiddish, English, Hebrew
No rating, 105 minutes