‘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.

During his Harvard career, Dubowski co-chaired the BGLSTA and was amazed at “all this diversity within it.” Having come out the summer between his first and second years at Harvard, he said he was attempting to tackle the question, “What do you come out into?”

For the moment, Dubowski felt it was too heated of a time to really confront the question for himself, and that “the puritan wasteland of Boston” wasn’t the ideal place to do so. So he spent time in San Francisco, whose spirited gay population he found much more supportive. After college, Dubowski moved back home to New York.

Dubowski said that coming to terms with his sexuality “led me to spiritual questions.” Though raised in a less traditional conservative community, Dubowski found himself “drawn to explore Orthodox Judaism.” At this point he finds himself “falling into the margin” of Orthodoxy, “and that’s really the most exciting place to be.”

Like his own experience, the characters in Dubowski’s film have had mixed success with their struggle. Some stories turned out well; David has reunited with his father and rabbi. Others did not; a pair of orthodox lesbians featured have separated after over a decade together.

Dubowski said he felt that the film functions in much the same way as halacha, traditional Jewish law, does.

“Think of halacha as a compendium of human responses over time,” he said. In his film as well, “the human story has a weight that is hopefully transformative. It’s a different form of text. It’s like a video Teshuva [rabbinic verdict].”

The film begins from the verse from Leviticus condemning homosexuality and ends with a description of secret gay Orthodox and Chasidic communities throughout the world, along with a benediction praising God as a “knower of secrets.”

Dubowski said that this shift is represented in the dash in the film’s title.

“I want the film to arc from prohibition to blessing,” he says. “What comes between are the stories, and the stories make up that dash.”

Dubowski said that he is thrilled with the dialogue that the film has generated. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, one of the film’s subjects and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, is planning to publish a book in March on the more scholarly aspects of the issue. In the meantime, Dubowski said, “we have not solved Leviticus, but we created a table where everyone feels comfortable.”

Though the film was completed over two years ago, Dubowski said that he considers it more of a process than a finished project.

“We’ve touched a nerve, and now you’re watching a birth of voices,” he said. As a result, the newly released DVD has a featurette that continues where the film left off. “I just had to create a whole other film,” Dubowski said.

Dubowski plans to continue traveling with the film, including to Christian theological seminaries across the South of the country. He is also collaborating with a gay Muslim director on a film tentatively titled In the Name of Allah, which discusses homosexuality in Islam.

—Crimson Staff Writer Jayme J. Herschkopf can be reached at herschk@fas.harvard.edu