We’re so used to hearing film figures trumpet
their desire to "make a difference" through their work
in Oscar acceptance speeches or Barbara Walters interviews, that
we give them little credence. Despite lacking such high-profile
media resources, Brooklyn-born independent filmmaker Sandi Simcha
DuBowski is making the cliche reality.
DuBowski’s documentary, "Trembling Before G-d," brings out of the closet an entire hidden community: Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who also happen to be homosexual. (The title is a play on the Hebrew word for the ultra-Orthodox, "haridim," or, "those who tremble before God"; the hyphenated "G-d" adheres to the tradition that the holy name of the Supreme Being is not to be written in full.)
The film is receiving rapturous international acclaim and audience attention. "Trembling Before G-d" screenings continue to sell out frequently at Manhattan’s Film Forum, more than a month after its opening, and the film has been held over at least through Christmas.
Audience members are doing more than just watching. "I know of a family," DuBowski tells GO Brooklyn, "that has been pressuring their [gay] son to get married. Their son’s been suicidal for a while. He’s just gone crazy. And his parents went to see the film with the rabbi. And it turns out now that they’ve stopped pressuring him to get married."
The director can reel off similar stories of his film serving as a balm to begin healing rifts. "There are other people who’ve been estranged from their families, and their parents went to see the film and now they’ve gone home for Shabbat for the first time in years," he says.
"This is a group of people who had no mass public voice and basically were treated as sin or sickness," says DuBowski. "The film’s now given them a dignity and a reality." As a gay man raised by Conservative Jewish parents in Manhattan Beach, DuBowski began the project as a personal exploration.
"But when I started meeting people who were kicked out of yeshivas [Jewish learning institutions] for homosexual activity, and they were thrown out of families or they were in marriages and betraying their husband or wife, it became clear that I had a much greater responsibility and accountability to the people I had met and to the community that I had started to really feel a part of," he says.
Despite DuBowski’s missionary zeal, the resulting film avoids polemic. "Trembling Before G-d" often feels like an affectionate, if sorrowful, family portrait. DuBowski makes palpable the everyday beauty of the Orthodox world he got to know: its enveloping warmth, the communal joy of its ceremonies and the spiritual satisfaction of its rituals.
The film took five years to shoot in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, London, Miami and San Francisco. Among the subjects in DuBowski’s film are Michelle, a lesbian who grew up Hasidic in Borough Park, was disowned by her family seven years ago and "has barely seen the rest of her family since." Yet, Michelle is following in her famous father’s footsteps by pursuing a devotion to music. Another is Israel, who leads the "Big Knish Tours" through Brooklyn’s heavily Hasidic neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg; and there’s "Malka" and "Leah" who became high school sweethearts in Midwood’s Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox girls school.
It becomes easy to understand why most of the subjects - some with faces hidden and voices altered - could never turn their backs on this world, even as its traditional mores condemn their sexuality and inflict immense pain.
The director himself, far from growing cynical over the six years he spent chronicling these conflicts, "became more religious through making the film."
As general audiences flock to the movie, DuBowski observes with a touch of amusement, "gay people are now a bridge to the outside world and a messenger of Orthodoxy, which, believe me, is not exactly what a lot of Hasidim expected." He says he is amazed by the broad embrace of what would seem to be a quintessential "niche" film.
DuBowski recalls that after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, "this guy ran up to me and he said, ’I’m from Pakistan, I’m a Muslim and I’m straight. Give me a hug.’ And I was in Miami, and this African-American pastor stood up and she said, ’You know what? I thought I was here to see a film about other people. This film was about my Pentecostal upbringing.’ Anyone who grew up in any world in which they felt alone, they felt outside I think that’s how people connected to the film."
"’Trembling Before G-d’ is one of the most popular films to play at Film Forum in the last several years," says the theater’s programming and publicity associate Mike Maggiore. "I think that one reason for the film’s enormous success is the indefatigable outreach efforts of Sandi, who has spread the word to a wide range of communities."
DuBowski strove to ensure his film would not become another forgotten documentary.
"Theatrical releases for a documentary, a) are extremely rare, and b) almost always fail because no one actually attends to it and no one creates a series of promoted events around it," says DuBowski.
He is not simply trying to get bodies in the seats. The filmmaker sees these efforts as key to reaching hearts and minds. "People really need feedback, they need to talk to each other," DuBowski says. "It’s not a film that poses answers. This is a film that asks questions."
DuBowski recently started "bringing the film to Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox places that don’t have TV and don’t go to movies." The first session, a few weeks ago, involved roughly 40 people, gathered in a private Brooklyn home.
"We showed it on a monitor, not even a TV. We talked until 2:30 in the morning," he says. "We had one guy who said, ’Orthodox families should shun gay people homosexuality is really disgusting and revolting. It’s about decay, it’s not about life.’ And this woman across the table said, ’How could you say that about our children?’ It was pretty lively Out of that evening I got three other invitations."
The vibrations sent out by "Trembling Before G-d" don’t stop outside its creator’s door. It has also marked something of a turning point for DuBowski and his parents, who had their own struggles over his coming out 13 years ago, at the age of 18.
"I think the film has actually provided a vehicle for them to talk about my gayness, because it’s connected with, at this point, success," he says. "They can brag to all of their friends: ’Did you see the front page of the New York Times?’ and so on. After encountering all of these Orthodox families that had abandoned their kids, I appreciated my parents a lot more.
"Look, I think it’s all about dialogue and process," DuBowski notes. "You have to give people some time to shape their heads around a new reality."
"Trembling Before G-d" continues through December at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. at Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. For tickets and more information, call (212) 727-8110.