INTERVIEW: Fear and "Trembling"; Sandi Dubowski Seeks the Irreconcilable Differences of Sex and Religion

by Jim Fouratt

(indieWIRE/ 10.31.01) -- "Trembling Before G-D" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2001 after a total of six years from birth to completion. The documentary tells the story of eight men and women, all Orthodox Jews, who have struggled both to find God in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and to accept their own homosexuality.

The last 9 months have seen the film and its 32-year-old, Harvard Magna Cum Laude director Sandi Simcha Dubowski travel the world to select festivals. He has been engaging audience members in a form of dialogue that started at Sundance with a Mormon/Jewish open discussion and a Shabat (Friday night religious dinner), which had people like Tilda Swinton and B. Ruby Rich breaking bread and drinking wine as out Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg led prayers and gave sagacious blessings (it's become the model of engagement for post-screening audience participation). His production team included NYU Professor and notable filmmaker ("One of Us") Susan Korda as editor, Mark Smolowitz as co-producer and John Zorn as composer.

Four days after the opening night at the Film Forum, indieWIRE finally caught up with the busy director the morning after he had hosted a Shabat for 70 gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, for a detailed discussion about getting his subjects to open up, editing 450 hours of footage and his own personal struggles.

indieWIRE: What led to your choosing to make a film with this subject matter?

"I was trying to understand what it means to come out and to come home. I wanted to see if there was gay life in this world I had grown up in."

Sandi Dubowski: After college, I went to work at MIX, the Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film and Video Festival. It was my coming out in more ways than one. I had grown up in a pretty insular Jewish, if somewhat secular/conservative, environment in Brooklyn. At MIX, I found myself immersed in a gay and lesbian world made up of Americans, Latinos, Brazilians, and Asians -- a whole mix of queer creativity. Tom Kalin, Marlon Riggs, Deborah Hoffman, Todd Haynes, Isaac Julien had all made their first feature and were very available to challenge all of us at MIX to be a part of Queer Cinema. I began to ask where I had come from before I came out as gay. It helped that I had moved back to Brooklyn to my parent's house, being the only child. I had always been the object of my parents' love and expectation.

I knew I was trying to understand what it means to come out and to come home. There was no gay anything nearby in my neighborhood. I wanted to see if there was gay life in this world I had grown up in. I wanted to wrestle with the patriarchal structures I had grown up with and were instilled in me. It was in the Orthodox community that I saw a world in which men hold much public power. Women's power is much more private. Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not negate the pleasure of sex and makes giving sexual pleasure to his wife the sacred duty of a husband.

iW: Why did you choose to be a director?

Dubowski: I didn't choose to be a film director. I didn't go to film school. I was inspired by MIX to make a personal video with my 88-year-old grandmother ("Tomboychik"). I saw it at first as an oral history for my family. Yes I had done my thesis in college on exposing outside the frame the history of the male body in Hollywood film. It was a very postmodern academic work with lots of hyphens and parenthesis in the title. College had been a time when I was exploring gay identity both personally and academically. It was a very important time for me. Than after graduation I had to go back to find who I was before I came out.

iW: A Jewish boy?

Dubowski: Yes. I wanted to go back and reclaim that identity too.

iW: But you also did hang with the MIX kids, which some would say in the early