A chance meeting at a law firm holiday party got Chicago writer/director Susana Darwin thinking about a script she’s been working on for 17 years. Darwin, a Jewish lawyer, met a male attorney with his children, who were being raised as Orthodox Jews, even though he had left the Orthodox tradition and no longer practiced his religion.
Darwin wasn’t interested in him. It was his ex-wife she wondered about.
“I wondered, what would happen if I met a woman like his ex-wife, who was living a meaningful life within the Jewish strictures which others would find confining – and what if there was an attraction there?”
Thus the script for the short film, Hatboxes, was born. And when Darwin reconnected with an old friend, Forest Parker and film producer Etta Worthington, the movie began to take shape. At last, after a long time planning, casting and fundraising, the film will finally be shot in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood at the end of June.
Worthington teaches script-writing at Columbia College and produces the Foodgasm, an Internet cooking series with her daughter, Ashley Simone. When she heard about the script, she knew it could touch chords in people on many levels.
“Even though I’m not Jewish,” Worthington said, “I understood that this is a thoughtful film with a literary quality.”
The film’s storyline involves the deepening relationship between an Orthodox single mother who owns a hat shop and a secular Jewish female lawyer, who is curious about exploring the faith of her heritage.
Darwin chose to tell the story of a milliner because head coverings are an ancient part of the Jewish tradition. “Hats and head coverings are a widely used symbol of honoring the divine,” she said. Women in different Jewish sects wear hats, wigs, head-wraps and a hair-cover called a “snood.”
She also wanted to explore the tradition of female Jewish entrepreneurs, who start businesses to help their families. “Miriam” the hatmaker, creates coverings that promote modesty and religious observance, but she also has an outlet for creativity and can make an impact on fashion, said Darwin.
“Nadine” the secular female lawyer is a colleague of Miriam’s husband, and having been raised in a mixed marriage – Jew and non-Jew – has a keen interest in the heritage she doesn’t really understand.
“There is a mutual fascination with how each represents to the other a different way of living,” said Darwin.
As the breakup of her marriage finally sinks in with Miriam, she extends an act of kindness to Nadine by inviting her to Sabbath dinner with herself and her children, exposing an virtual stranger to the intimacy of her family life. From there the relationship develops.
“Hatboxes captures a moment of longing that isn’t necessarily going to work out,” said Worthington. “And there’s the symbolism of the hat box. It’s an object from another era that is strong and sturdy. Miriam keeps photographs from the past in a hatbox.”
Darwin, who studied film in college, got her law degree and has worked in publishing for many years in Chicago at the American Bar Association. She hopes this film will eventually become a full-length feature. She also has other scripts up her sleeve.
Worthington formerly lived in Oak Park, where her daughter attended Oak Park and River Forest High School. Her own conservative Christian background included a father who was a Baptist preacher and siblings who are missionaries and teach in bible educational institutions. She says the family “meets on what we can meet on,” regarding sexual orientation.
Worthington got involved in filmmaking when her daughter literally ran off with the circus, dancing for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey for 2½ years. “I thought to myself, ‘What was it that I was too conservative to do at 22 that I wish I had done?'” Turned out, it was filmmaking.
“My first film was called Circus Mom. I screened it at a women’s retreat and half the women in the room were in tears,” she recalled. “That was something I could never do with my writing.”
Worthington and Darwin have teamed up with a 501(c)3 called From the Heart Productions and are soliciting tax-deductible donations to support Hatboxes. They have been raising funds through the Indiegogo.com fundraising platform website and the film has a Facebook page.
With the Hatboxes project, Worthington and Darwin hope to screen at festivals and on the LGBT film festival circuit. They also envision marketing it to universities.
“There are lots of women’s studies and queer studies programs that could use a film like this,” Worthington said. “It’s subtle, literary and gets people thinking.”