'Trembling Before God': The Movie and The Movement
Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the New York Foundation for the Arts arts-in-education supplement Chalkboard (spring 2002 issue, Vol. 11, No. 2), included semi-annually in FYI, a quarterly magazine of art and culture.
FYI: What was the origin of Trembling Before G-d?
Sandy DuBowski: Trembling started as a video diary, an exploration of whether there is homosexuality in the Orthodox world. But over the six years making it, it became something much larger, more global and complex than I ever imagined. Having grown up a Conservative Jew and never known anyone Orthodox and gay, I started to meet people who were kicked out of their Orthodox families, thrown out of yeshivas or religious schools, and in marriages betraying their husband or wife. The project grew to embrace the responsibility and accountability necessary to do to the issue and the community I was representing. I spent thousands of hours being filmmaker, peer counselor, rabbi referral service, friend, fundraiser. I never anticipated how much my life would transform, how I would make a film and it would in turn, make me.
Do you see the film as “straight documentary” or more as outreach/activism?
Media puts a human face on what is often an abstract issue—in this case the Biblical prohibition in Leviticus cited by many rabbis and preachers against homosexuality. The film for me is a witness and a catalyst for social change, and this is inseparable. All of our events and dialogues and discussions geometrically expand the experience of the film for audiences who walk away with an emotionally intense experience, no easy answers and many tough questions. They open dialogue among gay couples, Hasidic families, former fundamentalist Christians, Jews of all backgrounds—groups that rarely speak. That is the joy of theatrical over television—the sense of live presence, as opposed to sitting safely in one’s own world.
I also do not believe that you put a documentary in the theater just like any fiction film. You have to galvanize it as a series of promoted events. Documentary is the stepchild of the film industry; once in theaters, a doc needs to perform fast and strong or else be yanked or have reduced shows.
Trembling played for an amazing four months because with all our outreach, we cemented audiences into the theatrical space by creating special nights, from Catholic-Jewish gay dialogues with churches to a human rights forum with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to a night with seven Orthodox synagogues following specific screenings. This built a city-wide buzz and press, an incredible following, and we kept re-generating attendance through reaching out to different communities and mobilizing their e-mail lists and contacts.
My distributor, New Yorker Films, has been incredibly supportive. In fact, Jose Lopez of New Yorker Films approached me after our New York premiere at the Human Rights Watch International Festival, where everyone from the film came on-stage for an electric Q & A, and said, “We need an emergency meeting in the office tomorrow.” The next day, Jose sat me down and said, “It is clear from last night you created a family. And this film must move as a family. I want to open the film in New York in late October and for you to have the time to do the dialogues and discussions you want to do, to go out and change lives, and we will not open another city until January.” I started to cry. Who had blessed this union? That the film after seven years of struggle would fall into the right hands, with a distributor who quickly grasped this film was not just a movie, but the seeds of a movement. His foresight and our success at the box office allowed us not just to open Trembling in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, but have a truly national release in cities like Las Vegas, Louisville and Columbus.
What has it been like traveling with the film?
Give me a city, a cell phone and a list of phone numbers and I am happy with the nomadic life. It really is a blessing and a pleasure to be able to engage with audiences for whom Trembling is a deeply felt lifeline to their own struggles, whether that means being childless in a community that values procreation, escaping from a fundamentalist community of any stripe or feeling like an outsider. And amazing to watch lives change and communities transform before your eyes. At one showing, a woman stood up and said she had stepped into a mikve, a ritual bath, three weeks ago to cure herself of her homosexuality. Now after seeing the film, she was going to re-enter that mikve in order to accept her homosexuality. Her parents had thrown her into a mental asylum because she was a lesbian. She was a professional, a mother now. She sobbed throughout the entire film and Q & A.
I am getting revved up for the tour of Christian theological seminaries in the American South that we are launching this year with Working Films. Myself and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and featured in the film, who has come on board as Trembling’s Director of Education, will go to Duke Divinity School as well as Pat Robertson’s, Jerry Falwell’s, and Bob Jones Universities. I want to take the film to the hardest to reach religious places.
How did the idea of doing discussion groups come about?
At our World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I linked up with longtime friends and colleagues Robert West and Judith Helfand, who founded Working Films. We decided to hold an unprecedented Mormon-Jewish gay dialogue. It became clear that Trembling could have enormous impact, and not just for Jews.
I think too few filmmakers approach the festival and theatrical space as a pre-determined shape, without any creativity that these spaces can embody. Most filmmakers come to a festival like Sundance with cell phone ready to make a deal, but forget the fact that it is even in Utah and what potential that could mean. It meant that we were in negotiation with a number of distributors who saw how much energy, enthusiasm and savvy marketing we could bring to the table and how a film about a minority of a minority could resonate very widely. The ground that was paved in Sundance meant that in San Francisco we received a major grant from The Walter and Elise Haas Foundation to launch and fund dialogues and outreach during the theatrical release there.
What are some common criticisms/complaints/concerns? How do you deal with these?
The Agudas Israel—the main ultra-Orthodox organization in the US—released a critique of Trembling Before G-d over the wires. It basically criticizes the film for not treating homosexuality as a mental illness that can be cured. They ask “Where are the stories of those who have fought their homosexuality and won, who are now straight, married and happy?” I ask these detractors, “Are you prepared to sacrifice your daughters to gay men who claimed they changed?” It is the best conversation stopper. Most say no.
In Baltimore, we actually had Evangelical Christians from Take Back Maryland! and Orthodox Jews protesting the film in front of the Charles Theater. Of course e-mails circulated from forewarned progressive groups and 300 counter-protestors showed up to support the film that night. What was supposed to be a week run in a tough arthouse town like Baltimore transformed into a four-week hit. We also now have the top leadership of Baltimore’s Jewish community—which has the largest proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews of any city in America—opening to the issue of homosexuality like never before, and educators, health professionals, psychologists, foundation executives looking to us for guidance. We are planning a major training there later this year.
Have you taken the film to the Orthodox community? What has that reaction been like?
I began what I am calling the Outreach TV project. Many Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not watch television, nor go to movie theaters. So I began a project that brings the film—and televisions— to religious homes. Our first screening was for 40 Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews at the home of a teacher I had come to know in Brooklyn. People packed into a small room lined with shelves of religious tomes after Shabbat to watch a computer monitor and then argued until 2:30 AM about the issues. The evening led to invitations to show the film in three more very religious homes. We also began screening the film in Orthodox synagogues; we are up to 12 invitations, which is mind-blowing. And 16 Orthodox synagogues have sent their members and co-sponsored post-screening discussions.
Do you forsee taking the film to schools?
We just did our first-ever screening at a Hebrew day school, in Philadelphia. The Orthodox principal, Rabbi Field, came opening night to our theatrical launch, and immediately said, “I want this to screen for all my 11th and 12th graders.” No parents —and this includes many Orthodox parents—pulled their children out. The principal is incredibly passionate about Trembling and wants to bring together students and faculty to design curriculum and study guides with the film.
Are the film's subjects still engaged with promoting the film? What has this been like for them?
Malka and Leah are high school sweethearts, having met at an ultra-Orthodox girls school. They have been together for 13 years and appear in the film in silhouette, where we see the emotional heartbreak of family rejection. But through this process of witnessing the film’s bloom and meeting others like themselves, they have decided to step out of the shadows and leave the closet behind. A few months ago in Atlanta they did their first public appearance, where they received a standing ovation. An Orthodox gay man in the film, David, who must have pulled out of the film five or six times because he did not want to violate “kibbud ava’em,” the commandment to honor one’s parents, is still not quite comfortable with his public presence, but laughs that we saved him thousands of dollars in therapy. Even “Devorah,” an ultra-Orthodox married lesbian who is still closeted to her husband, came to the Jerusalem Premiere and watched 550 people listen to her. The next day, she was giving a talk for work, and her co-workers wondered, “What happened to you in the past 24 hours?” Her voice had gained a power. For a group of people who had no voice, who felt their life story had no value and they were abominations, being listened to has been a profound act.
For more information on the film, visit www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com. To book screenings, please contact New Yorker Films at 212.247.6110.