3 min

Keeping the faith

Unorthodox gay liberation by gay Orthodox

Credit: Xtra files

The standard in gay films is that people leave. Faced with oppressive religious or small town bigotry, gay people choose to escape. There’s the usual scene near the end of each film in which the main character walks down a city street filled with kissing fags and dykes – or dances in a disco surrounded by a sea of shirtless men a la Queer As Folk. This is the vision of liberation.

Sandi DuBowski’s silence-breaking feature documentary, Trembling Before G-d, questions that vision. Looking at the lives of gay and lesbian believers who continue to struggle from within Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, DuBowski focusses on those who have chosen to stay.

“It’s a film that challenges most people’s understanding of gay identity,” says DuBowski (director of the short Tomboychik). “Twentieth century gay liberation is basically: You’re gay, you’ve got a good job, you live in a big urban centre, life isn’t that hard anymore. This film’s really about this next wave: People of strong faith communities, or communities of colour or rural communities.

“It used to be in the ’70s everyone would leave. You would move to the Castro – or whatever the Toronto equivalent is. But there’s a difference now. People are saying, ‘We don’t want to leave our communities of origin; we’re not going to leave our families or give up what we love.’ You have people now who are trying to integrate their sexuality and not choosing to leave and live a ‘gay life.’

“The biggest problem with this film was I had to make the audience understand why if someone is gay, they would still want to be Orthodox,” DuBowski says.

At times, it’s a hard sell.

Faced with hatred and rejection from their families, faith and community, one of the film’s subjects asks rhetorical questions, “Why do Orthodox gays even have to bring their voice up? Why not just leave it? Either join the gay movement, or be in the Orthodox camp and keep them all out. What we’re saying is it’s not that simple. It’s not secular versus religious values. We’re saying we have religious values, yet there’s this reality about being gay.”

It’s a gut-wrenching struggle, as the film portrays over and over people who are obviously in love with their tradition and their God. Several scenes present face-to-face conflicts with rabbis or family members committed to the homophobic doctrines of their faith. But all is not hopeless, as we also meet the first out Orthodox rabbi Steve Greenberg and other leaders who are struggling with condemning passages from the Torah.

One rabbinical scholar speaks of the influence that out believers are having on the faith. “When you don’t know, you tend to demonize and almost dehumanize,” he says. “When you’ve met the individual, when you’ve seen the sincerity in his prayers, you can no longer demonize and dehumanize. You just have to love and help – and in the final analysis, that’s what Judaism is all about.”

Having been given a greater appreciation for the wealth of Judaism through his six year struggle to make the film, DuBowski goes to great lengths to show the Orthodox tradition as deeply communal and scholarly. The daily ritual practice truly defines people’s identities. Trembling Before G-d is very much a story about a particular people and a particular tradition but the experiences of rejection, identity and expulsion can be transposed to Catholic, evangelical right or Muslim faith communities.

Not unlike Toronto’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, Orthodox communities often form entire districts, giving believers a sense of place in the world.

Unable to shoot during Sabbath and other religious rites central to Orthodox life, actors reenact in shadow silhouettes the daily rituals. “I had to make a film that was about invisibility, basically,” says DuBowski. “It doesn’t seem like film is the best medium for that. It presented a really interesting challenge.” This invisibility is palpable in the film, as most of the subjects interviewed still speak from the shadows, faces hidden from the camera.

Trembling Before G-d has already received great success, premiering at Sundance Festival, opening in 80 different cities and being invited to play in 12 Orthodox synagogues. The screening in Toronto will be matched with a Sabbath celebration and four nights of panel discussions with members of the gay community and Orthodox rabbis.

“As a base line, what I want for the film is to relieve pain,” says DuBowski. “And to give people a sense that they have a home.”