UK Jewish Film Festival – Sacred Sperm – Review ****

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For an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, explaining the birds and the bees to his (almost) teenage son can be slightly more complicated than to the secular parents. Particularly if the father himself lived a non-religious existence until his 30s. Director Ori Gruder isn’t sure what to do – after all, he himself finds hard to understand the severe prohibition on “not protecting the covenant” (that’s Jewish for spilling semen outside married intercourse), so how can he pass on a good message to his own son? Gruder, already having directed a TV series documentary on his late conversion discoveries (My Faith, 2011-2), decided the best would be to grab a camera and go ask…first, for permission from his wife and rabbi, of course.

You would think that nowadays there would be few young men capable of observing what is, basically, a no-masturbation rule, but when Gruder takes you to meet a family whose patriarch does not even touch his private parts to go to the bathroom…well, this is the time to reframe your mind. Do not expect, however, a religious sermon, or a dogma pushed down your throat – Gruder’s sense of humour and curiosity thread a thin line between his secular past and his ultra-religious present, and is therefore the best bridge a non-Jewish audience could hope for, particularly when what’s portrayed is a community’s taboo theme. Strangely enough (or not really), the documentary was a success when it was broadcasted in Israel, and many Haredi are watching it on their smartphones (going to the cinema is not allowed).

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Filmed in a domestic, casual style (not that stable tripods and handheld), Sacred Sperm never goes into vulgarity despite its subject, but doesn’t refrain from making the intrusive questions to its characters. The majority of the audience will of course be shocked at the young men and women that get married when they’re only 18, and even more horrified at the grown men that don’t manage to get married that young and are forced into celibacy until they find a suitable wife, but somehow – most likely because Gruder’s sensibility as a director and religious man don’t shadow in any way his true journalistic curiosity – there’s a good feeling when the film ends. Rabbis making penis jokes, young men asking how to please their wives, the idea of sacred life and the power of love, these are all elements any human can relate to.

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Whether you intend to protect your “covenant” or are spilling it o’er mountain, hill and plain, you will definitely take something out of Sacred Sperm, even if it’s just the cinephile pleasure of having an intimate portrait of a very private, reclusive religious community. Just leave your prejudice at the door.

Sacred Sperm will be playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival. For more info, please check http://ukjewishfilm.org/

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.