Overcoming Abuse in Israel
In Yolande Zauberman’s “M”, egregious abuse is exposed and explored. The film tells the harrowing story of Menahem Lang, a gregarious thirtysomething Israeli singer and actor who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, where he was raped systematically as a child by multiple religious elders. In his 20s, Lang confronted one of his abusers, and managed to secure an on-camera confession which was subsequently broadcast on national television. But he remained haunted by his past experiences, and convinced that sexual abuse in the community was still widespread. In the film he returns to Bnei Brak in search of further closure.
Shot almost entirely at night, a striking number of scenes take place inside cars, and it’s all set to a heavy, jazz-inflected score. As damaged as Lang clearly is, he’s motivated by a desire to heal his blighted, pathologically secretive community.
Many of the city’s older and more devout inhabitants would clearly like Lang to keep quiet or go away. Lang’s own parents prove completely inept at offering their son the support he so clearly needs. But other encounters take less predictable turns. During his time back home, Lang strikes up a friendship with a 19-year-old who was abused by his older brothers. After sharing their darkest secrets, the younger man feels he can open up about the fact that he believes he may be gay but is also completely clueless about sex. The subsequent exchange, in which Lang attempts to bring him up to speed, is both heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Director Zauberman strikes a clever balance here, giving us a formally inventive film which is angry but also empathetic, and which leaves the viewer with a sense that recovery from even the most appalling trauma is possible.
Zauberman sets out on a particularly dark journey to uncover a widespread, albeit absolutely unreported in the public, issue in the reticent community of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The documentary opens at night in Tel Aviv where Lang demonstrates why he has become a renowned performer of liturgical chants in a religious community. In the next scene we see Menahem discussing his preference for transsexuals with Miss Trans Israel, despite claiming to be of heterosexual orientation.
Lang left the Jewish religion, used his beautiful voice as an actor, and gained notoriety, as well as infamy in certain religious circles, for exposing his childhood abuser and getting his confession on camera. He was not the only rapist; Lang was not even eight years old at that time. And he was not the only victim.
In a rare glance behind the curtain of an enclosed religious community that shuns media attention, “M” uncovers shocking behavioral patterns that became normalized over the course of years. Several generations testify to the deeply-rooted sexual abuse in numerous distressing personal accounts and point towards intrinsic pathology.
Zauberman combines journalistic investigation and intriguing storytelling to give us a gripping exposé on rampant sexual abuse, and the touching personal story of Menahem Lang and how childhood abuse changed his life and his stance toward religion and how he finds more uncomfortable answers.
This is disturbing to see but Lang’s candidness and bravery to speak out and lay bare his experiences, his struggles with his own demons and a lack of understanding among family members are amazing. His charisma and credibility draws other victims with similar stories into his orbit, uncovering identical patterns.
The power of the film is in its accessibility. The perfectly-chosen protagonist’s willingness to be painfully frank about what happened to him and how it turned around his private life and his initial expression of attraction to transsexuals has a heartbreaking explanation.
Lang is completely charming. He is open and willing to probe the darker recesses of his soul by recalling the traumatizing experiences. He does not avoid less favorable and least expected circumstances as why he did not defend himself more furiously against the unwanted physical advances. His testimony and the circumstances he describes have great social relevance, although not exclusive to the community of Orthodox Jews. The catalysts have nothing to do with religion and Zauberman´s film brings forth eye-opening discoveries.
The director delivers wonderful storytelling. She manages to incorporate entertaining moments courtesy of Lang in carefully-timed, light flourishes of humor.
Lang becomes the confessor, the teacher and eventually the bearer of the light, even though he himself acknowledges the damage that cannot be undone. He remains dedicated to preventing the abuse and calling other victims out to not suffer in silence.