Film a Jewish story in Borough Park? Not this one, say locals

Could you honk, like, five times next time instead of four?” shouts Renee Zellweger at a truck that blares past the sidewalk set of director Boaz Yakin’s A Price Below Rubies. Here in the bustling Bushwick section of Brooklyn, impatient drivers are part of the package, along with trains screeching on the elevated tracks and April gusts that threaten to send equipment flying. As crew members struggle with three nylon screens, however, producer John Penotti smiles and says, ”This is nothing compared to Borough Park.”

For Miramax’s Rubies, due out next year, the only-in-New York story of a young Hasidic woman (Jerry Maguire‘s Zellweger) who ponders leaving her religious-scholar husband (Glenn Fitzgerald) for a Latino (Jason’s Lyric star Allen Payne), there was a distinct home-field disadvantage to filming in Borough Park, a bastion of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect: When cast and crew arrived for two days of shooting last month, residents promptly forced them out.

Yakin, 31, debuted in 1994 with the Sundance-prizewinning Fresh, about a black Brooklyn boy who double-crosses rival drug lords. But for Rubies, the Manhattan-bred former yeshiva student says he wanted to make a movie about what happens when ”the power of female sexuality” asserts itself in a conservative community. On March 25, he got one answer.

Around 6 a.m., Rubies‘ trailers arrived on a busy shopping strip of 13th Avenue, Borough Park’s main thoroughfare. Onlookers reportedly didn’t like what they perceived as disheveled Hasidic characters in bad wigs and garbage decorating the set. Rumors began circulating. Some got the straight story; others heard that Rubies deals with a woman who wants to become a rabbi. But both plotlines are outrageous to Hasidim, and by 10:30 a.m. the clamor of a crowd some witnesses put at 50 (though New York papers reported 400 and 1,500) compelled Yakin to stop filming. ”All you need is 10 guys who won’t not look in the camera and you can’t shoot,” he says.

”People were very upset that stereotypes were taking place in front of their eyes,” says state assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose office overlooks the block. ”You don’t come to the heart of Hasidic New York to denigrate [it].”

In the wake of the standoff, Yakin calls his portrait of New York’s Hasidim just ”10 degrees right of average American society” but admits, ”When we were talking about shooting in Borough Park, I was like, ‘We’re going to have trouble.”’ Where other filmmakers might have enticed locals with roles as extras or a donation to charity, Yakin doesn’t know what he could have offered. ”Every [other] movie is about forming a bond,” he notes. ”This is about breaking bonds.” And he bristles at clearing his project with the citizenry. ”If you’re shooting a movie in Little Italy, does that mean you have to talk to the local mafiosi and the baker?”

In the realpolitik of New York streets, maybe you do. Before the incident, ER‘s Julianna Margulies, who plays Zellweger’s sister-in-law, observed, ”There’s a real support system when you come from a community.” Rubies had legalities on its side: The police had been notified; leaflets were distributed five days in advance. Borough Park had Borough Park.

A Price Above Rubies
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