SXSW 2021 Review: The Mohel

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

The Mohel is about a circumcision. James (Daniel Maslany) and his wife, Lola (Kaelen Ohm), have just had a baby, and James wants his son circumcised in a brit milah, a traditional Jewish ceremony that occurs eight days after a baby’s birth. But more than that, The Mohel is about a man caught between tradition he never fully understood and his current life, and through the performances the film conveys universal emotions regardless of religious background, though it remains firmly grounded in the Judaic tradition.

James, it becomes clear, is not a “good Jew,” as evidenced by his constantly-falling-off yarmulke he dons for the brit milah. Rabbi Fishel (played wonderfully by Sam Rosenthal), whom James hired, quickly notices this, and catches on to the fact that wife Lola was not born Jewish but rather converted; she reaches out to shake the rabbi’s hand before remembering that he wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and forgets to cover up her decidedly unOrthodox tattoos. Still, Rabbi Fishel charms everyone with his geniality, and James and Lola begin to relax.

Yet after the ceremony itself goes smoothly, Rabbi Fishel reminds James of his religious shortcomings and the ways in which he falls short. In short, James isn’t Jewish enough. But what, exactly, does Jewish enough mean? Does it mean James has to become like Rabbi Fishel, who follows the law to a T but passes severe judgments and punishments on those he deems unworthy?

The film doesn’t dig quite deep enough into its premise of someone caught between worlds, but remains a competently made film with a beautiful blue color palette and strong performances that elevate it. It’s surprisingly funny (a rabbi walks into a circumcision and says, “I don’t just work for the tips!”) and never drifts into melodrama; while it fails to completely connect on a deeper level, The Mohel is an easily watchable film, even if some of it is also easily forgettable.

The Mohel Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Interview: Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany Discuss ‘The Mohel’

Directed by Charles Wahl and starring Daniel Maslany, The Mohel tells the story of a man caught between the worlds of religion and money as he prepares for his son’s Brit Milah ceremony. The film received its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Festival.

Interview by Anna Harrison

Charles Wahl

What was the inspiration for this movie? How much did you draw on your own experiences for the film? 

The Inspiration for the film came from a conversation I had with another Jewish filmmaker when I was telling him about what it’s like to live in a smaller city that doesn’t have a big Jewish community. I had mentioned that there aren’t any Mohel’s anywhere near where I was living at the time and how stressful a process it was to have to fly one in for The Brit Milah ceremony. That conversation led to other stories I had heard from friends and family throughout the years about conversion, and interesting incidents around ceremonies. By the end of the conversation the other filmmaker said “you have to make a film about this!” Taking a step back I thought…he’s right! After sleeping on it for a little while I started to find a way to frame a story that dealt with all the themes I wanted to explore, the often transactional nature of religion, and the challenges of living with old-world traditions in the modern world. A Brit Milah seemed like a perfect setting to tackle those themes, and I drew from an amalgam of experiences from my family, friends, and my own life. I was really attracted to the dynamic of focusing on a character who is basically trying to do what he thinks is right by pleasing everyone around him. He doesn’t want to let his mother down, his wife down, his baby boy, or the rabbi!  

Were there any major script changes from conception to end? 

The screenplay remained pretty consistent from the start all the way to the end actually. As we moved closer to production I mainly reduced dialogue as we went, and made some subtle adjustments to Lola’s character. I wanted to make sure her presence was felt throughout, and how she felt about her husband and child was clear. In the initial drafts it was a little more ambiguous than the finished film.

How long did the development and filming process take in total? 

From the time I committed to start writing the script, until we had a final master was about a year and a half. A good chunk of that time was spent waiting to find out if I received grant funding from Arts Nova Scotia, which I did and am incredibly grateful for. And also trying to find a production schedule that worked for everyone. All of the main players involved in the film are very busy, and it took a lot of time to find the right window of availability for everyone.

You wore several different hats for this film—writer, director, producer. Were there any times those roles clashed, i.e., the writer side wanted to do something, but the producer side knew it wasn’t feasible? 

Haha all the time! I definitely wanted to write some larger scale sequences, and as I was writing the producer side would constantly slap the writer side’s wrist and say I don’t think we’ll be able to pull that off. For example I wanted to expand the child’s birth to kick off the film. I wanted to show how long intense, and vigorous the birth was, and then show how after all of that he had to instantly start organizing the Bris. I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to pull the resources to do that. 

Were there any unexpected production hurdles or challenges? 

The biggest challenge was to make sure everything was authentic. For the film to work I knew that all of the religious aspects had to be right, otherwise it wouldn’t resonate with viewers. To achieve the authenticity Sam Rosenthal, the actor who plays The Mohel, and I went and met with a Rabbi at a local synagogue. We walked him through the story and he agreed to help us. He provided all the prayers used in the film, recorded himself saying them properly for Sam to use to rehearse with, and ultimately was the person we would reach out to throughout the process with any questions about propping, wardrobe, etc.

How did you get the babies to cooperate (or, rather, how did you handle when they were uncooperative)? 

The baby was all of our biggest fear going into production haha. As a father of two children myself I know how unpredictable young babies can be. So to be ready for the shoot we put contingencies in place if the baby was acting up, like using one of the lifelike dolls in wide shots, and things like that. But in the end, the baby was amazing. He never fussed at all throughout the entire shoot…it was pretty incredible. 

I love the film’s cool color palette; it was really striking and aesthetically pleasing. How do you decide on a film’s visual look? What’s the collaboration process like with wardrobe, set, etc. to arrive at said look? 

Cinematographer Guy Godfree and I talked about different looks and styles quite a bit as we led up to the shoot, but we were both on the same page that it should all feel very natural, raw, and atmospheric at the same time. To do that we opted to film on an Alexa Mini with Vintage Anamorphic glass.That way we could get the production value and cinema quality from the anamorphic, while being able to stay lightweight and keep the lighting natural. In terms of colour we knew we wanted things to feel very earthy and muted. We didn’t want any really bright colours on people, and instead for it to be formal and restrained. We worked with the production designer, and wardrobe stylist to make sure all the colours stayed in the palette. And then we were really lucky to work with Colourist Wade Odlum to help refine the look and get it to the next level. 

Right away, James and Lola’s relationship feels sweet and lived-in—specifically, I’m thinking of when James says, “We can’t afford either of them.” It’s such a small moment but the way the line is delivered so naturally and comfortably sold me on their relationship. How do you approach conveying strong relationships and three-dimensional characters when you have a shorter running time and script? 

A lot of that energy came from Daniel and Kaelen’s energy together. They are both really incredible actors who do the work and come in prepared. I had spoken with them both at length ahead of the shoot about the characters, and by the time we got to the set we were all on the same page. Also it helps that they had worked with each other before so the ice had already been broken, and once they were together on set they could get to work on figuring things out. The way Daniel performed “We can’t afford either of them.” was all his choice. I had imagined it delivered a different way when I wrote the script, but when I saw Daniel’s choice I thought it worked so much better.

If you got a tattoo, what would it be and why?

I am actually planning on getting another couple tattoos soon. I have two young boys and I got them to write their names for me, and I am going to get them tattoo’d on different parts of my arm as if they had doodled them on. Parenthood has truly shown me how fast life moves, and I want to have something on me that will symbolize this time in their lives forever.

Daniel Maslany

How did you get brought on board The Mohel? 

I had worked with Kaelen Ohm (who plays Lola), before and I remember we had a great chat on set about the kind of work we were interested in. She had been in Charles Wahl’s SXSW 2019 Short Little Grey Bubbles and so she passed my name along to Charles when they were discussing casting for The Mohel. Charles sent me the script to read and Little Grey Bubbles to watch, and I loved his approach and ability to capture intimate and authentic moments on film – both in his writing and directing. 

What drew you to the script and how did you relate to James? 

I was drawn to the way Charles chose to present this story, and his use of comedic touches within a really tense situation. I liked the idea of playing a father too, as it’s not a role I’ve had the chance to play before. I completely related to James. He’s stuck trying to do what’s best based on expectations and tradition, and yet the film doesn’t end with a huge argument where everything is aired out, but instead all of the tension is simmering just underneath – which is way more interesting to play. Charles presents some interesting questions for audiences to discuss when the credits roll. I think the best short films pose those kinds of questions for an audience, without giving us all the answers.

Was there a rehearsal process, and if so, how long did it take? 

Charles and I took a lot of time to chat about the character history and dynamics before, but we didn’t spend a lot of our time rehearsing in advance. Charles is really clear with what he wants, and yet he creates a space where it feels easy to play and explore and find things naturally. Charles wanted to minimize the time I spent with Sam Rosenthal (who plays the Mohel) off camera, which helped feed into our dynamic as strangers that are suddenly involved in a really personal and pivotal ceremony together. I had more time with Kaelen, and I think the two of us found a really fun chemistry with implied history that developed naturally when we did our first scene together. I love rehearsals but it’s also so fun to save things to be discovered on camera, and there’s an immediacy that’s difficult to recreate when you’ve gone over a scene many times before. Charles even asked me not to memorize the Hebrew blessing that James’ recites during the ceremony. I was only able to brush up on the first few lines, as they are more common phrases that James would have grown up hearing, but on the day I had to recite the blessing by just repeating after Sam – who was really motoring through it! We also shot that scene from only one angle without being able to edit around things. I was so nervous to mess it up, which is exactly what James would be feeling in that moment. 

Did your understanding of James change over the course of filming? 

Yeah, I think the more I play any character the deeper my understanding grows. I learnt the most about James from the other characters -my wife, my mom, the rabbi. You can prep your own lines as much as you want, but there’s so much information to be gained by just taking in how characters respond to you and treat you. It was such a great cast to work with.  

I was really impressed by how real and fleshed out James felt despite the film only being 14 minutes long, which is a testament to your performance and the script; when you have a short runtime, how do you “maximize” your screen time to convey a complete character?

Thanks for saying that! I think the key moments Charles chose to show within those 14 minutes are really all you need. There’s a real freedom with a short film, knowing that the character isn’t going to be someone you live with and play for future episodes or seasons. You can imagine a history and obviously discuss that with your scene partners, but all that matters are the little moments that you might find within the scenes. I also felt I was mostly just playing myself, which I don’t get to do very often. And Charles is so delicate in what he even chooses to show on camera. He’s very restrained, and worked with our cinematographer Guy Godfree to give it a very spontaneous feel as if the camera is just catching moments rather than things feeling overly composed or set up.

What was working with Charles Wahl like? How much of a collaborative process was making The Mohel?

Charles gives so much space and respect to all of his collaborators. He creates a calm and positive atmosphere on set that really encourages play. And he is also incredibly detailed, and will have considered all of the answers and possibilities to any question you might have. He’s such a great director. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

You have done extensive work in theater; how has your theater background informed your work in film? What are some of the biggest differences in how you approach your performance in the different mediums?

It’s funny you ask that, because I actually really feel a connection between the process of making a short film and working on a play. My experience in theater has often been that you can see the very origin of inspiration for what we’re making in the room – especially when developing new plays. Feeling close to each department, and involved in a real collaboration with other artists is so rewarding. I have that same feeling working on a short – and particularly The Mohel. The intimacy of the kinds of stories you can tell in a short film really reminds me of working on a play in a small black box theatre. The process might be different, but the creative spark feels very similar. In terms of performance style, the night before we started shooting The Mohel, Charles said to me, “Don’t worry about showing the camera what you’re thinking or feeling. Just feel it and experience it and we’ll take care of the rest.” That felt like the perfect key in to the tone and style he wanted for the film, and it’s such a liberating note to hear from a director. 

Favorite movie of 2020?

I really loved the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead directed by Kirsten Johnson. It was so unbelievably moving and personal and funny, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

The Mohel Trailer

You can also read Anna’s review of The Mohel, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.