Most of us have spent quarantine in various states of undress, watching our bank accounts dwindle and begging our motivation to return from the war. Shira Haas, in contrast, has spent quarantine becoming an international star, a burgeoning icon of dramatic acting praised for everything from the power of her facial expressions to the timbre of her emotion-laden singing voice.
Already known for indie flicks and the breakout Israeli series Shtisel, which has gained popularity since landing on U.S. Netflix in 2018, the coronavirus pandemic turned Haas, who was born and raised in Israel, into an overnight sensation: Just as millions of Americans sought to ease anxieties and boredom in mid-March, the miniseries Unorthodox, loosely inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of growing up in the Satmar Hasidic sect, landed on our screens.
When I spoke to her in May, Haas told me she was supposed to be in the U.S. but was instead locked down in Tel Aviv, winning awards over the phone and waiting for an all-clear to begin production on the third season of Shtisel (which now appears to be in the works. What Haas really wanted to do was visit her grandmother, which she told me she didn’t think was safe to do yet.
In the midst of the critical praise for Unorthodox, which was just nominated for eight Emmy awards, as well as a more mixed reception from some Orthodox writers, Israeli director Ruthy Pribar’s film Asia premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. In the film, Haas stars as a rebellious Russian-Israeli teenager named Vika whose contentious relationship with her mother (Alena Yiv) is further challenged by her rapidly advancing muscular dystrophy. Though the festival went digital this year, emerging as one of the only major film festivals to press on in the face of COVID. Haas still officially won the award for best actress in an international feature for her performance as Vika. As some fall festivals drop their competitive categories mid-pandemic, Haas may have won the last festival acting award of the year.
Throughout the first half of the film, I worried that Asia was going to present a story about people with disabilities that I’ve unfortunately seen before: Vika doesn’t want to die a virgin, and her goal to have sex while she still has control over her movements appears, in the beginning, to be her guiding force. I was disappointed that the film may promote the idea that sex can make a disabled person whole or more fully human, and equally disappointed that Haas would take on such a role. While Vika’s sexual desire is understandable, the film threatened to send mixed messages about women’s agency and personhood through its self-sabotaging protagonist.
When Vika’s mother, Asia, privately arranges for Vika’s home aid, Gabi (Tamir Mulla), to have sex with her while she still has control of her faculties, I feared it was time for me to emotionally check out of the film. But when Gabi makes a move, Haas’ biting whisper of “I don’t need anyone’s pity” drew me right back into the story.
Like Esty in Unorthodox, Haas’ character in Asia must deal with trauma of the body. The two characters are in very different circumstances, and their trauma stems from different sources: Esty forces herself to endure painful sex to conceive, while Vika faces an imminent future of pain and deterioration that will end in the loss of her pulmonary functions. Both young women are on the precipice of the unknown, whether that unknown is death or the prospect of a new life.
When I talked to Haas, I asked her why she was drawn to characters in such extreme situations. “I think both Esty and Vika go on a journey of choice,” Haas said. “Both stories are about taking control of your body and your life.” Esty chooses to make a new life for herself away from her community, while Vika chooses not only how she will live her final months, but how she will die.
I won’t spoil it for you, but the film ends with a radical act of both self-actualization and mutual trust and love that left me shocked — and also reminded me of the power of Haas’ subtle performance quality. And while Asia won’t hit U.S. theaters until next winter — assuming movie theaters are a thing then — it’s been picked up by a film company that once boasted five international Oscar nominated-films in a row, signaling big things for Pribar and Haas. As her popularity continues to grow, I’m confident that Haas will continue to choose roles that offer new insights into little-told stories and underrepresented characters. I can’t wait to watch.
Header Image via Asia.