I met Paula Eiselt years ago when my brother dated her aunt. We became friendly with her wonderful parents, and from the get-go, she struck me as a sweet, fun-loving and bright young girl.
That being said, I never dreamed that one day her documentary film would receive an initial 100% from Rotten Tomatoes. Seriously, even movies that have won an Academy Award usually don’t score 100%.
The acclaimed new film by Eiselt, who grew up in Woodmere and now lives in Teaneck, is “93Queen.” It follows the creation of Ezras Nashim, an all-female EMT service in Borough Park founded in 2014. 93Queen is now showing at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village and at the Teaneck Cinema, and will open on Long Island on Thursday, Aug. 23, at the Malverne Cinema.
Eiselt’s foray into filmmaking began during her sophomore year in HAFTR, when she cut class and rented Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” It inspired her so much that she decided to become a filmmaker, eventually interning with Aronofsky himself. In 2012, she began producing a documentary about her uncle Baruch and his journey through bipolar disorder, but soon put that project on hold to work on 93Queen.
Eiselt is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, was an IFP Documentary Lab Fellow and won the inaugural FirstLook prize at the 2017 Hot Docs Forum in Toronto. Her work has been supported by the Sundance Institute, ITVS, IFP, the New York State Council on the Arts, the International Documentary Association, Women Make Movies, and the Hartley Film Foundation. She served as researcher for “The Undocumented” (Independent Lens) and as associate producer for “Bronx Princess (POV). Additional directing credits include short films Priscilla (New York Newfilmmaker Series at Anthology Film Archive), My Mom the Dead Head (Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner) and The Fitting Room (New York Jewish Student Short Film Festival). In addition to her feature documentaries, Eiselt is developing a New York Times Op-Doc on Jewish identity in collaboration with the team behind the In Conversation on Race series.
When I heard about 93Queen, I was immediately intrigued and was lucky enough to have been invited to the premier in Manhattan. As much as I knew about the film in advance, to say I was blown away is an understatement. From the moment the movie opened until the closing credits rolled, I was mesmerized. I don’t ever recall viewing a movie and not looking at my watch at least once.
I was riveted to the screen for the entire 90 minutes, and when the film was over, I was enthralled by the live question-and-answer period with Eiselt and Ruchie Freier, the ambulance corps’ founder.
Creating Ezras Nashim was not an easy feat. Many in the Orthodox neighborhood believed that it would result in an inappropriate breakdown of traditional gender roles. When women wanted to join the all-male Hatzolah, they were met with a resounding “NO.” Opponents worried that if Hatzolah became a mixed-gender service, what would come next?
The documentary follows Rachel Freier (or Ruchie, as she refers to herself) and a group of Hasidic women who decide to start an all-woman volunteer EMT service after they are not allowed to join the established all-male Hatzolah.
Ruchie, who is now a New York criminal court judge, was an attorney when the documentary began filming. She faced many obstacles — online messages accused her of challenging the Torah and of playing with fire.
Why did Eiselt choose to make a documentary about Ezras Nashim?
“Over five years ago, I was perusing a Yiddish website and came across a photo featuring Hasidic women in lab coats,” Eiselt said. “I read in the accompanying description about Ruchie Freier, a Hasidic woman who was leading her fellow Hasidic women from Brooklyn in creating America’s first all-female volunteer EMT corps. They were called Ezras Nashim or ‘women helping women.’
“As an Orthodox woman myself, I immediately understood that the formation of Ezras Nashim would be a significant distraction to cultural norms in the gender segregated Hasidic community. At that point, Hatzolah, the all-male orthodox EMS corps, were not only opposing, but actively working against these trailblazing women. Until that moment I had never heard of proud Hasidic women challenging the status quo of their community and refusing to take no for an answer from the all-powerful patriarchy.
“Their courage and persistence, and demanding progress from their community — even in the face of fear — is why I made 93Queen.”
The opening of 93 Queen at the Malverne Cinema on Aug. 23 at 7:30pm will be followed by Q&A with Ruchie and Paula.