‘Trembling’ Director Confesses at HFA

About halfway through Trembling Before G-d, a controversial documentary by Sandi L. Dubowski ’92 about homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism, the film reaches the story of Devorah, a married Chasidic woman who considers herself a lesbian. A man and his wife shown in silhouette light the traditional Friday night candles as Devorah explains that she proposed a platonic relationship with her husband. He flatly refuses; the outline of the candles turns into bars.

This powerful imagery personifies the confusion and pain that the film’s subjects have undergone. As Dubowski explained at a special screening last Thursday at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA), “having these people tell their story meant revisiting a terrible trauma.”

The screening was partially sponsored by BAGELS, Harvard’s newly resurrected queer Jewish students group. President Julia B. Appel ’04 introduced Dubowski before the film, saying he represented one of the most powerful voices in the field.

Dubowski stands unassumingly as he talks, is blue kippah displayed prominently on his head and a think reddish-brown beard covering his face.

Dubowski said he had never anticipated being a director. While at Harvard he concentrated in social studies, which “didn’t really know what to do with [him].” Though his thesis explored media and sexuality, he never once stepped into the Carpenter Center or went to film school.

“Life is my film school,” he said.

Dubowski said he didn’t care much for the tenets one might learn in film school.

“I don’t believe in the kind of fly on the wall style of filmmaker,” he said, “where you don’t think about how your presence can change the action.”

Rather, Dubowski insists on creating a deep relationship with his subjects.

“Eighty percent of the moments I was with people I wasn’t even thinking about the film,” he said. “You have to be there for them when the camera is turned off You can’t just steal their stories.”

This meant that Trembling took six years to complete.

Another factor in the lengthy production time was the reticence of many to appear in the film. Some of the subjects are still married; others are still trying to find acceptance in the community, “worried about shaming [their families],” according to Dubowski.

In the end, Dubowski found seven people who agreed to appear in various degrees of anonymity. Some, like Devorah, appear in silhouette with a disguised voice. Others, like David, simply withhold their last names.

Since the film’s release, however, Dubowski has heard about scores of people who are interested in sharing their own experiences.

“I think the film has given people courage to come out,” he said. “They didn’t have that before.”

The film has proven successful, if controversial. At a packed premiere at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, Dubowski recalls a sign that read, “two Jews and a Baptist will do anything for tickets.” It was further lauded at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, and since then Dubowski has been what he calls, “trembling on the road.” He estimates that about three million people have seen the film worldwide.