Sitting at a Chinese restaurant, 33-yearold Brooklynite filmmaker Debra Kirschner confides, “You know, it’s such an uphill battle to be ‘found’ as a filmmaker.” So instead of waiting to be found, she decided to well…find herself The result is her first independent feature film, “The Tollbooth” (2004). With Maria Sokoloff (from “Dude Where’s My Car” and other films) and Tovah Feldshuh, it’s a modern-day spin on “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Set in Brooklyn and Manhattan, “Tollbooth” tells the coming-of-age story of three close sisters and the disapproval they face from their traditional Jewish parents (one dates a Catholic boy, one’s a lesbian, one has a husband who’s a financial flop). The film has a hilarious edge remniscent of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Says Kirschner, “I feel like I’m part of an interesting Zeitgeist of filmmakers producing movies illustrating young women who don’t want to reject their culture, yet feel a lot of their culture’s traditions are oppressive to women.” Kirschner continues that, “In Jewish films, there is a lot of self-mocking, but also a lot of loving and embracing of culture too.”
This is true of the youngest daughter Sarabeth (Sokoloff), rejecting her parent’s dreams for her by dating a Catholic and becoming an artist in New York, yet painting the memories of Holocaust stories her father told her when she was a little girl. We watch the middle daughter, devoutly religious, come out as a lesbian at the Passover seder, and the tenuous rift which opens as her mother initially rejects her identity.
Decidedly upbeat in its poking fun at a harried mother who thirsts only for a gaggle of Jewish sons-in-law and grandchildren, “The Tollbooth” asks the more critical questions as well, framing traditionalism versus feminism in a Jewish context. Asks Sarabeth poignantly, “What is the point of being chosen if you don’t have any choices?”
Before earning her film certificate from New York University, Kirschner, a self-proclaimed liberal and feminist, was writing feminist plays and dark fairytales. Says Kirschner, “This is a very Jewish story, and each woman has a storyline where they have to reconcile traditional upbringing with modern life.” Undoubtedly, it is a stellar first feature film. In the private screening I attended, the room reverberated with both laughter and tears, suggesting that Kirschner is one filmmaker who can pull at the heartstrings and at the same time keep her Jewish feminist politics in balance.
Ilana Kramer is a graduate student in gender politics at New York University.