Leta Lenik, a Chicago-born dancer-choreographer-turned-filmmaker, had wanted for years to make a documentary about the problems many Jewish women have in obtaining a get (Jewish divorce), but she didn’t get going in earnest until Beverly Siegel, a fellow documentarian from Chicago, called in 2003. Siegel had been approached by the parents of a woman whose husband would not give her a get.
Lenik, who lives in Rockland County’s Wesley Hills, and Siegel spent seven years working on “Women Unchained,” an hour-long documentary about get extortion — the payments that husbands, often with the tacit support of rabbis, demand before giving a get. The documentary will have its premiere on Sunday at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival. The film will make its area premiere next week as part of the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival (Thursday, March 31, 7:30 p.m., at the AMC Loews Palisades Center 21, 4303 Palisades Center Drive, West Nyack; panel discussion to follow;  362-4400, jccofrockland.org).
“Women Unchained,” shot in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, focuses on the stories of five agunot — “chained” women who are unable, according to Jewish law, to remarry until they receive a get — in the United States; four eventually got their gets.
One agunah in the film, identified as Ariel, is a 40-year-old woman who waited a year and a half for her get, while her parents negotiated with her now-ex-husband, who prolonged the process by making exorbitant financial demands. Other women profiled in the documentary had to wait much longer, for the same reason.
There are an estimated “hundreds” of agunot in this country, according to the Brooklyn-based Agunah International organization.
The production, with narration by actress Mayim Bialik and an original score by guitarist C Lanzbom, features interviews with agunot, attorneys and rabbinical experts on the agunah problem.
“We couldn’t get a [recalcitrant] husband to talk to us,” Lenik said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where the documentary had its Israeli premiere last week to standing-room-only, religiously mixed crowds at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center.
The agunot and rabbis in “Women Unchained” advocate the importance, for both men and women, of signing a halachically valid pre-nuptial agreement, enforceable in civil court, before marriage. The child of a woman who remarries without a get may be considered a mamzer, unable to marry another Jew.
“We’re trying to advocate for change,” Siegel said. While many Jews who do not follow Jewish law may consider a get unimportant, a mamzer status could affect a child who becomes observant, she said. “How do you know how your children are going to end up?”
She says the documentary has “a very modern sensibility; it makes you laugh, it makes you cry.”
“There has to be something” — within the bounds of Jewish law — “to alleviate the situation,” said Lenik, who became a fulltime filmmaker a decade ago after working with her husband, documentary maker David Lenik. She has worked on scores of industrial and fund-raising films, and produced “Hungry to be Heard,” a 2008 documentary about eating disorders in the Orthodox community.
“Women Unchained” emphasizes ways to help agunot, and more information on the matter is available on a Facebook page set up by the filmmakers.
“We wanted to keep our film very solution-oriented,” Lenik said. “I don’t think the solution is going to come from the rabbis. The solution will come from Jews putting pressure on the rabbis.”