Short film navigates plagues as route to self-discovery

One afternoon four years ago, Serena Shulman accidentally cut herself while shaving in the shower. She was getting ready for Rosh Hashanah dinner and was running late. The cut wouldn’t stop bleeding.

“I thought to myself, ‘This would be hilarious if it weren’t happening to me,’” she said. And with that thought, a story was born.

Shayna (Nina E. Jordan) runs from the plagues on the way to the family seder.

The incident inspired Shulman’s 10-minute short film, “The Ten Plagues,” which follows protagonist Shayna as she navigates her way to her family’s Passover seder. Along the way she encounters each of the biblical Ten Plagues, starting with the blood from the cut she inflicts on herself while shaving in the shower. “The plagues symbolize a wake-up call for her,” Shulman said. “They cause her to put everything together and think that she should be charting her own course, which ties into the biblical story of freedom.”

The desire for more freedom is something Shulman can relate to. She began work on the film in 2010 when she lived in New York. Her job in technology meant that she had to write her script on nights and weekends. “I wanted to make a film about a person’s rite of passage,” Shulman said, “of her growing up and not following someone else’s expectations like we’re supposed to.”

Like Shayna, Shulman received a wake-up call a year ago, when she moved to San Francisco to pursue her passion for filmmaking. She joined Scary Cow, a cooperative of more than 250 independent filmmakers in San Francisco, where she met Jimmie Cooper and Andrew Callaway while working on a Web series called “Push Hard Inn.”

“The Ten Plagues” evolved when Cooper and Callaway read the script and decided to help make the film. The trio began pre-production almost immediately in November of last year.

It took them from November to March to tighten the script and get it into shooting order. They paid for the film with a monthlong Kickstarter campaign, asking for contributions to create “a comedy of belonging and identity,” raising $3,310. The script came to life in just six days with actors hired from Casting Networks flown to shoot on location in San Francisco and Brooklyn.

“The Ten Plagues” marks Shulman’s filmmaking, screenwriting and directing debut. She is now sending the film to Jewish film festivals, where she hopes it will resonate with audiences, including teens. The protagonist feels alienated from Jewish traditions and doesn’t want to live up to the expectations her parents have for her. She struggles to find a sense of belonging and freedom, two themes that Shulman believes will be meaningful for teens who often struggle with their own Jewish identity.

The film debuted at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre on July 6 as part of the Scary Cow Film Festival. “The Ten Plagues” won the top award for best new film, as well as five awards for directing, writing, acting, editing and original score.

Since moving to San Francisco, Shulman has worked exclusively as a filmmaker, helping friends from Scary Cow with their projects while continuing to develop her own. She has launched her own production company, LipShtick Pictures, which she hopes to use as a vehicle to “make more films with strong female leads and Jewish themes.”

She’s a member of S.F. Congregation Emanu-El, and is excited about her synagogue showing the film during Passover next year. She has already begun work on her next project, a Web series about mature women running a Silicon Valley startup who are forced to live without their technological devices on a company retreat.