Florida Film Festival features a short film by 'hometown girl' Talia Osteen
August 7, 2020
The Central Florida Jewish community knew and loved Talia Osteen as one of the three members of the singing group Visions, which began under the guidance of Cantor Allan Robuck of Congregation Ohev Shalom. Each of the girls eventually went their own way and Osteen moved to New York, then to California, to pursue her career in the film industry. She successfully starred in five national TV series, and also formed the band The Wellspring, which released five albums and composed scores for several TV series. Turning her attention to working behind the camera as a writer, director, and producer, she has co-produced and co-created a feature comedy film and a TV series with her wife, Sara Hess, a producer and writer on "Orange is the New Black."
Osteen has now brought her love of Judaism and storytelling together through a comedic and cinematic lens in "The Shabbos Goy," which she wrote and directed, and was produced through the highly competitive Powderkeg: Fuse incubator program, launched by comedy filmmaker Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "Ghostbusters") to help amplify the voices of women filmmakers.
Osteen said she was prompted by the Powderkeg: Fuse incubator program to make a comedy about a micro community in Los Angeles, and Osteen seized the opportunity to do what she says she loves best in her storytelling - subvert expectations. Particularly in a time where anti-Semitism is on the rise, it felt to her like a prescient time to show a different, more joyful side of Orthodox Judaism than the oppressive and grave picture that's more often portrayed in the media.
Surprisingly, one of the co-stars has relatives here in Central Florida. Yisrael Dubov (sound familiar?) plays the fiancé of Chana, the main character of the film. Dubov was cast in the role before Osteen realized his father is Rabbi Sholom Dubov. The film is featured in the Florida Film Festival at the Enzian on Sunday, Aug. 9 at 3:30 p.m. (socially distanced & masked with limited seating), followed by a Q & A with the filmmakers. This year, virtual attendance is also an option.
What makes "The Shabbos Goy" different from other movies involving Orthodox women is that Osteen decided she needed to make the Shabbos goy do something funnier than flipping a light switch. (You have to see the film to find out what's so shockingly funny.)
"The Shabbos Goy" is a seven-minute snapshot of the silliness that can ensue when tradition and modernity live side by side and bump up against each other in awkward ways," said writer Shira Hanau of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Osteen meant to have a comedic approach to Orthodoxy and wanted to show a different side that normally isn't seen.
"The darker sides of the Orthodox world deserve to be highlighted," she told JTA, "as they have been in the 2017 film 'Disobedience,' which starred Rachel McAdams as a closeted Orthodox lesbian, or 'Unorthodox,' the story of a woman who leaves Hasidic Williamsburg behind for Berlin."
Where the movie most directly subverts Hollywood stereotypes of Orthodoxy is in the way it depicts women's sexuality.
"I want to invert the expectation that frum or Orthodox Jews are not as sexual as everybody else," Osteen told JTA. "It is supposed to be a nod to the fact that there's more to Orthodox women than what we might think of."
Osteen isn't Orthodox, she and Hess send their son to a Jewish preschool and go to Ikar, a nondenominational synagogue in West Los Angeles.
According to JTA, it was Osteen's Orthodox friends who helped inspire the idea for the short.
In 2009, Osteen met Dov Rosenblatt, a Modern Orthodox musician who was looking to get his music into film and television scores. The two began writing songs, and in 2010, they started a band, The Wellspring, and went on tour together.
Osteen learned from Rosenblatt the importance of a Shabbos goy, and it intrigued her.
In the JTA review, the film is described as "a fast-paced tour of the Jewish neighborhood of Pico Robertson, where Chana (played by Milana Vayntrub) struggles to find someone who isn't Jewish who can help."
Eventually she finds a Black man who agrees to be the Shabbos goy but questions her assumption that he is not Jewish. Another bit of a twist to the plot. "It turns out, but it reminds us of the timely reflection and soul searching many are undertaking in regards to diversity within and allyship between the Jewish community and other minority communities," Osteen told Heritage.
The film makes a clear effort to get the details accurate and was helped by having people on set who had a strong familiarity with Orthodoxy. Even the music, composed by Osteen and Rosenblatt, is based on a traditional niggun, a wordless melody, adapted to suit the arc of the script.
Osteen is currently developing a feature film and possible TV series based on "The Shabbos Goy," with Feig and his production company producing.
However the story continues, Osteen is gratified by the positive feedback from Jews and non-Jews alike, but especially from Orthodox viewers.
"I wasn't sure which way it would go," she said of the response from Orthodox viewers. "But that makes me very happy."
The Enzian is located at 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland. For information, call 407-629-1088.
Portions of a JTA article written by Shira Hanau are included in this article.