The formula for a “good story”: take what you know and render it unrecognizable. That’s the stuff of scintillating news (“Man Bites Dog,”); high-rated TV talk shows (“Baby, I slept with your brother’s wife”), and countless movie plot twists (What’s our sweet protagonist’s deep, dark secret? How did her father’s death really happen?). In the U.S. entertainment industry, these are stories that sell. Documentary filmmaking, however, uses this formula toward a slightly different end. What makes good documentary is tapping into the untold, to break a silence, to raise awareness about realities unseen that abound around us.
Trembling Before G-d does all three, with a poignancy that renders it an emotional kaleidoscope, and a masterpiece. It is also touches a charged political nerve, both for the ongoing clash between conservatism and liberalism (as evidenced by the ongoing protest surrounding this film), and the gay rights movement which, like many other movements for social justice, continues to struggle with questions of assimilation versus liberation, diversity versus ideological and cultural sameness. Part of a still small pool of media that’s beginning to chip away at the stereotype that all gays are white, middle class, and Godless (and that all those who cherish religion are heterosexual), Trembling tells a tale that to many seems unthinkable: what it’s like to live the life of an Orthodox Jew who is also gay or lesbian.
Opening with silhouettes of people partaking in traditional Jewish ritual, the movie then follows a number of people as they tell of their own struggles with this apparent split between sexuality and faith. David, from Los Angeles, plans a visit to his childhood rabbi, who had recommended “reparative” therapy for his sexual orientation when he came out 20 years ago. “Devrah,” an Israeli married lesbian, discusses coping with the knowledge that she both is not fully committed to her husband, as well as shunned by the burgeoning Israeli gay liberation movement, which shuns Orthodoxy. “Leah” and “Malka,” a lesbian couple in Miami, attempt to live an Orthodox life while struggling with fallout from their families; Mark, a gay HIV-positive Londoner, returns to yeshiva after being kicked out; and Israel and Michelle, both from Brooklyn, tell stories of leaving their communities altogether. Their personal, very specific stories help the film to illustrate broader themes—compromise and regret, guilt and depression, fear and inner conflict.
The movie might have easily descended into binarism, pitting the monolith of religious demagoguery against the hardship of struggling individuals who do not fit the mold. But it takes the more difficult, and more honest, route of blurring the lines between criticizer and criticized. In fact, some of the most pointed reflections on the possibilities (and limitations) of being truly Orthodox and gay come from the gay people themselves. For instance, Israel, one of the most vociferous in his condemnation of the limitations of Orthodoxy, breaks down into fond remembrances of his father when he returns to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. At the same time, the inability to acknowledge or forgive can be equally moving, if very differently. One of the most heartrending scenes shows David’s reunion with his childhood rabbi, who, despite expressing love for him, cannot accept him, or rather, cannot accept his sin.
Trembling Before G-d handles uncomfortable material with bravery and tender force; it is utterly human and unrelenting in its challenges to assumptions. It also does important work in juxtaposing the prolific cultural relativism of the left with the issue of gay rights. How do we fully understand the functionings of a culture that, to some degree, is other than our own? How do we recognize or critique those practices when they conflict with our senses of social justice and righteousness? Who are the participants in the gay rights movement? And what happens when those participants cannot be seen? (This last dilemma is depicted, when, at the end of the movie, the silhouettes return, and are revealed to be those of lesbian and gay Orthodox people living in New York City.) Though it doesn’t answer any of those questions, Trembling urges all who view it to examine themselves, and realize that those points of conflict, those unexpected turns in what we assume is familiar, are more than a good story—they’re the beginnings of change.