John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Film takes on Biodome 2, series looks at Orthodox Jews
'SPACESHIP EARTH' (HULU)
Does anyone actually remember Biodome 2? Decades after it happened, it's taken on the form of fringe events that like militias and One World Order opponents and the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate and other '90s weirdness crossed over into mainstream coverage, just for less tragic reasons. The people involved with Biodome 2 are much more benign than any of those I mention, even though the press at the time was quick to play connect the dots and try to over-stress the lines they created. It was just harmless hippies who became harmless capitalists, actually.
In Matt Wolf's documentary telling of the story from the point of view of the Biodome 2 creators and participants, events do swing back to the late `60s and San Francisco and, oh no, hippie performance art. The Theater of All Possibilities applied their performance principles to living life and under the leadership of the eccentric intellectual John Allen ended up building their own boat — a feat that impressed me far more than Biodome 2, actually — and traveled around the world, opening odd, but successful businesses along the way, adding an environmental science component to their adventures.
Wolf's film has amazing access to all involved and it's a fascinating story of naivete when the group attempts to propel their sketchy scientific effort through a massive publicity campaign — they find out that the press isn't necessarily there to further your project, but to ask questions. One of the questions they ask is whether Biodome 2 actually qualified as science, and Allen's followers understandably fall on the side of the affirmative, while the scientific community doesn't necessarily follow.
It's a fascinating depiction of mind over matter in which your beliefs create your reality and there is a can-do aspect of the group that is undeniably admirable. I wish the film weren't quite as reverent to them as it is. It could definitely use some outside voices that talk specifically about Biodome 2's scientific blunders, but as you watch their dabbling in capitalism and popular culture manifest as their comeuppance, you can't help but feel some sympathy.
Like Mr. Hyde to Shtisel's Dr. Jekyll, "Unorthodox" dramatizes the darker center of the world of ultra-orthodox Judaism that you don't often perceive as you encounter the alluring edges.
Based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, a former member of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, "Unorthodox" follows the story of 19-year-old Esty, played beautifully by Shira Haas, who was a standout in "Shtisel." Unhappy in an arranged marriage and feeling suffocated by her mother-in-law's prying. Esty was a true believer in the faith, raised by her grandmother in absence of her mother, who rejected the religion and community, and an unreliable, alcoholic father.
After the marriage ceremony, the pressure to become pregnant and the effort to prevent her from pursuing piano lessons set-off an emotional plunge that results a desperate flight. Hiding in Germany, Esty becomes involved with a group of music students, which inflames her desire to devote her life to music and seize the opportunity to forge her own identity. But it's not so simple — the leaders of the community have sent her husband, the spineless Yanky (Amit Rahav), and his thuggish cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), to Germany in order to bring her back.
"Unorthodox" stands as a critique of the methods used to control people and presents the Brooklyn community as one that poisons itself by not allowing members the freedom to choose whether to belong. In contrast to their efforts to set up barriers to Esty's participation in interests outside the community, Moishe's less savory adventures in the outside world are accepted by the community as necessary and acceptable since such experience has its uses in wrangling away freedom from women. In this way, "Unorthodox" is unflinching in its charge of hypocrisy and misogyny, and its examination of how religion and community can be used to exact control in ways that are presented as a tradition to be respected.
John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.
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