“Holy Rollers” explores drug smuggling in Hasidic community

PARK CITY, Utah–In the film “Holy Rollers,” an Israeli drug dealer recruits Hasidic Jews from an Orthodox Brooklyn community as mules to smuggle ecstasy from Amsterdam into the United States.

The film is inspired by actual events that occurred in the late 1990s, said director Kevin Asch, who along with his cast, came here to the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered.

“At the time, in the late ’90s, Amsterdam was to ecstasy what Colombia is to cocaine,” Asch explained as he and his cast sat down for a round-table with reporters at the Bing Bar on Main Street. “The pills are manufactured there. Danny (Abeckaser) plays this character this Israeli drug smuggle. His character has the idea to use these Hasidic Jews from this Brooklyn neighborhood. and him being Jewish himself, he was able to infiltrate these neighborhoods and meet these young Hasids that at first they innocently got involved not really understanding what they were doing and since they don’t have have much experience with drugs, they were told they were smuggling medicine for rich people. Once some of them just did one trip, made a little bit of money, and disappeared back into their community, the others…were seduced into this life and got a little bit involve and then a lot more involved.”

“I don’t think they even had an idea that they were doing anything illegal,” Abeckaser said. “The way the movie plays out, it’s all about their faith and their battle within their family and their community. This is what they are about to lose.”

The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, who reluctantly follows the path his family has chosen for him: an arranged marriage and studying to become a Rabbi. His neighbor, played by Justin Bartha, proposes that his friend transport “medicine” for an Israeli dealer and his girlfriend, Rachel (Ari Graynor).

Exposed to the exciting and gritty worlds of Manhattan and Amsterdam nightlife, Eisenberg’s character, Sam Gold, ends up experimenting with ecstasy and falling for Rachel.

Asch said getting his small film into Sundance “is the greatest honor I’ve ever had. It’s just been overwhelming for me hearing the news.”

It was Abeckaser who first saw the real-life account of ecstasy smuggling on a Discovery Channel documentary five years ago and mentioned it as a possible film project to the director.

Bartha and Eisenberg, in researching their roles, tried to observe the Hasidic community up close, but found that outsiders are not welcomed with open arms.

“It’s a very small film and that played to our advantage,” Asch said.

They filmed on the peripherals of the Hasidic community. “One day we went and infiltrated Williamsburg while we were shooting. We went out there on the street with Jesse and the camera.”

“Most people that are outsiders are looked upon as weird,” Abeckaser said. “I remember going and trying to talk to people and just getting to know them and even though I’m a Jew, they wouldn’t talk to me. I tried going into a synagogue…They’re very tight and stick to their own so it was very difficult to actually go out and shoot there.”

He said they took pains to be respectful to the community. “Obviously, the journey they go on (in the film), they go a little bit into the dark side, but at the end they all find their faith…and that’s the story we’re telling….Jesse’s character, Sam, at the end finds out that the path that he is living with is the right path and gets back into his community and gets back to his religion.”

“I guess the reason Sam is pulled into this world is because he has this ideal…that you can become rich and have this great life without any of the dark side that that brings,” Eisenberg said. “As the movie progresses, Sam sees that dark side and it ultimately turns him off.”

“There’s really something so beautiful about this culture and we really wanted to honor that,” Asch added.

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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