The new film Tahara has been creating a stir in the festivals. Written by Jess Zeidman and directed by Olivia Peace, Tahara is a queer coming-of-age drama about an anxious teen manipulated into a romantic encounter with her best friend during the funeral of their former Hebrew school classmate. Liba Vaynberg spoke to Peace and Zeidman about their collaboration.
What happens in Hebrew school very rarely stays in Hebrew school. Whether it’s a sacred blessing burned into the back of your brain or the adolescent negotiation of the profane.
This delicate and raw film, Tahara, marinates in teenage agony as two young women, Hannah Rosen (Rachel Sennott) and Carrie Lowstein (Madeline Grey DeFreece), navigate their identities in the wake of a fellow student’s suicide. Hannah and Carrie’s friendship strains as straight, hapless Hannah represses her pain, and Carrie feels her away through the loss and explores her own queerness.
Writer Jess Zeidman and director Olivia Peace found each other as Northwestern alumni. By the end of their first phone call, ideas had become plans. Scenes had become shots.
Peace, who studied undergraduate film at Northwestern, grew up Christian and received a Sundance Ignited Fellowship in 2017. At Sundance, Peace was told your first feature had to be “personal,” and for Peace, Tahara was it. “I’ve lived as a queer Black teenager in an insular religious space,” they explained, “I know that world well.”
Zeidman, who grew up as a self-described “blasé American Conservative Jew,” wrote the film as an assignment at Northwestern University for a class called “Writing the Micro-Budget Feature.”
Her original title—Tachrehim, or the white Jewish burial linen—was too confusing according to Peace, whose short film, Pangaea, was apparently unpronounceable at the Sundance Institute. Peace suggested the new name: Tahara, the state of ritual purity.
Zeidman remembered learning about the rituals that surround death in Hebrew School: “logistics is a huge part of the religion.” She didn’t find that part very interesting.
“Hebrew school pushed me to be an artist,” Zeidman said, “because I was so bored.”
But she’d “never seen a movie set in a Hebrew school,” so she explored that idea with Tahara. The movie was shot in the same sanctuary where Zeidman had been bat-mitzvahed: Temple Beth El in Rochester, New York.
Both Peace and Zeidman talked about the invisible weight of being a teenager, agreeing on the brutal self-doubt.
“Usually the only things that are allowed to have real weight or drama are heterosexual married couples,” Peace noted, “but, to me, the break ups I regret the most are the ones I have with my friends. They happen as a teenager because you don’t yet have the skills and tools to treat people kindly because you don’t know how to treat yourself kindly yet.”
This is a “break-up film” for Peace that “takes teenage conflicts seriously.”
The larger questions of trust and growth are spiritual ones for Zeidman: “Why do we believe people are our friends? Why do we believe they support us? It’s tenuous and intense. I believe in a higher power. Friendship is a religion. We are always looking to better understand ourselves through something that’s not us.”