Trembling Playground: Two Young Directors Discuss Film, Faith, and the Challenges of Documenting Religion

Article excerpt

Among the more critically acclaimed and commercially successful documentaries dealing with religion over the last several years, both Trembling Before G-d (New Yorker Films, 84 mins, 2001; www.trembingbeforeg-d.com) and Devil's Playground (Fox Lorber, 77 mins, 2002) traverse the complex terrain of religious orthodoxy at its border with modernity.

Trembling's title makes sly reference to the Hebrew term for the Ultra-Orthodox, haredi, literally, "one who trembles" in awe of God, similar in etymology to the term "Quaker." (Based on a passage in Deuteronomy 12:3, Orthodox Jews hold it a sin to utter or write the full name of God; hence "G-d").

In his directorial debut, Sandi Simcha DuBowski spent six years immersed in Orthodox and Hasidic communities from Los Angeles to Jerusalem in order to document the travails of their (largely closeted) gay and lesbian members. These strictly observant individuals struggle in the long shadow of Leviticus 20:13's capital injunction against homosexuality--"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." [New Revised Standard Version, Oxford Press: 1989] Whereas the other branches of Judaism tolerate gay and lesbian membership to varying degrees, the Orthodox tradition regards halachic proscription as immutable. [Ed. note: halacha fr. Heb.--Talmudic literature that deals with law and the interpretation of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures] Out of this seemingly intractable conflict, DuBowski fashioned a sympathetic, interrogative portrait that shook the film festival circuit, garnering numerous awards (including Official Selection at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival's coveted Teddy Award for Best Documentary) and generating a sensation among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

DuBowski also received funding to take his film on the road, attending screenings and facilitating discussions with audiences at more than 35 universities and in 70 cities around the world. He was awarded a grant from the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation to help launch a Trembling Before G-d Orthodox Community Education Project, a program designed to promote understanding and to explore the issues surrounding homosexuality in Orthodox school systems, mental health care networks, and within families and religious leadership in the US and Israel. But the extent of this film's influence is perhaps most dramatically reflected in the entry of the term "trembler" into the vernacular of Jewish communities around the world, designating the gay and lesbian Orthodox.

Devil's Playground examines the Amish tradition of rumspringa--literally "running around" in Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish German dialect--a rite of passage in which every young person tests the limits of his or her faith adherence by leaving the community expressly to experience contemporary life and its temptations. Old Order Amish doctrine famously dictates an exacting ethos of humility, family, community, and separation from the world. But as strict Anabaptists, the Old Order Amish maintain not only that individuals must be baptised as adults who freely profess their faith; they also must also join the Church consensually, as autonomous individuals, with full knowledge of the world they are to renounce.

At the age of 16, Amish youth are thus permitted to fraternize with the non-Amish and explore a lifestyle typical of teenagers in the "english" world (a term for the entirety of non-Amish culture). This extends to the most hedonistic trappings of contemporary adolescent experience, including substance use and abuse, consumerism, and sexual experimentation, to which community elders turn a blind eye.

Director Lucy Walker spent months cultivating relationships with Amish teenagers in communities ranging from Lagrange County, Indiana to Sarasota, Florida. The result is a compelling, bizarre, authoritative account of a youth culture uniquely situated at the juncture of family, community, modernity, and individuality, its future hanging in the balance of a perilous decision: those who decide to join the Church and then change their minds are "shunned"--permanently cut off by their families and the community. …