The story of Shmilu, a young Hasidic Jew torn between his faith and the romance of life in modern Hackney

A 23-year-old Hasidic Jew struggles to come to terms with the tension of staying true to tradition, and life as a young man in modern Britain, in Billy Lumby's short film Samuel-613. Set in east London, Shmilu (played by Theo Barklem-Biggs) is already divorced, grasping to control his coming-of-age and a creeping curiosity for life outside of his insular community. Sneaking in porn magazines and chatting on Facebook to non-Jewish girls leads to a row with his family, and Shmilu finds his freedom thrust into his hands. All of life's finest vices are ripe for the picking – booze and dating crumble under the weight of his lack of knowledge about topics such as Tupac and the 'outside' world that Shmilu is so new to, and he finds himself spiralling into the depths of excess with no sign of control. As we premiere the film, in association with The Pears Short Film Fund at UK Jewish Film, we spoke with the director about going undercover in a synagogue.

How did the storyline for Samuel-613 come about?

Billy Lumby: After moving to the area, I could not help being drawn to the people of Stamford Hill. I was struck by their incredible look and pious behaviour. It seemed a bizarre juxtaposition in the middle of trendy Hackney. Their customs are fascinating – arranged marriage, no TV, limited use of the internet, their own religious schools – Yiddish is their main and often only language. I read about people struggling to make the transition away from that world and thought it would make an interesting story.

How did you get involved with the Jewish community?

Billy Lumby: It was a long road of research and gradually meeting people. I've learnt a lot but still only feel like I scratched the surface. I began talking to people online, meeting some of those who had left, and a number of people still in the community but slightly more on the fringe. Believe it or not, I also went 'undercover' a few times, to Synagogues and meetings, sometimes successfully, sometimes very awkwardly found out.

“I was suddenly struck by their incredible look and pious behaviour. It seemed a bizarre juxtaposition in the middle of trendy Hackney” – Billy Lumby

What was their reaction to you filming such a dark story based on the community?

Billy Lumby: I can't say everybody welcomed me with open arms, but aside from the knockbacks I did meet lots of friendly people too. While we were filming they often mistook our actors for real Hasidim, checking whether they were okay, or if we were hassling them, which was a pleasing sign that the makeup and costume department were doing a decent job.

We recognise Shmilu's dad from the BBC documentary The Hasidic Drug Dealer. Was it a conscious decision to have him play such a strict character? What does this background add to the story? 

Billy Lumby: Samuel [Leibowitz] is a larger-than-life character and actually a really nice guy. He was experienced and confident in front of a camera and it was an essential way to get a flavour of the Yiddish language in there. Samuel also knows what it's like growing up in Stamford Hill and pushing the boundaries of what is allowed in the community, so he could relate to the story.

I originally wanted the entire cast to be Hasidic but despite doing some castings it was just too tough to find people for some of the roles. The main character is played by Theo Barklem-Biggs who Samuel showed the ropes to.

What were you hoping to say about the tension between traditions and religion, and life in modern day Britain?

Billy Lumby: I never really thought about it in a general sense like that – more the story of an individual – but I did want to make a film that explores the difficulties of leaving a community like this, albeit in my own weird and darkly comic way.

There are people that leave, get shunned by their families and get into messy divorces with children. Due to a limited education they often don't have the skills to adapt easily, so it's important to have support networks like Gesher EU and Footsteps in the US. I'm sure not all outcomes are as depressing as my story though.