Filmmaker documents individual views on queerness and religion

Upon returning to campus, students were greeted with a multitude of changes. Grass that had not been seen in months was visible and green, the ominous snow cloud that seemed to linger over Sawyer during midterms had passed and a rainbow banner was hung proudly over Paresky balcony, celebrating Queer Pride Days at the College. As a part of the events being hosted on and around campus during the entire month of April, the Dively Committee for Human Sexuality and Diversity, History Department, Religion Department, Jewish Studies Department, Minority Coalition and Queer Student Union cosponsored the screening of two films at Images: Trembling before G-d and Jihad for Love, as well bringing in film maker Sandi DuBowski – who directed Trembling before G-d and co-produced Jihad for Love – for a public Q-and-A session about the films.
While I did not get the opportunity to see Trembling Before G-d, the audience’s questions for DuBowski clearly indicated what an influential film it was. Based on the intimate stories of gay or lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, the film documents how these individuals struggled to combine their religious passion and their homosexuality. DuBowski began work on the film in 1994 and continued to work on it for the next six years, collecting information, interviewing people and traveling around the world.
One question asked by the audience was about the film’s effect on the Orthodox Jewish community since its release. DuBowski explained that he has shown the film at over 800 live events around the world. Modern synagogues have shown the film and it was even broadcasted on an Israeli television channel. “Rabbis who have been condemning homosexuality from the pulpit watch the film and say ‘I just don’t know,’” DuBowski said. He explained that while Leviticus is the usual point of reference for prohibition of homosexuality in the Bible and Torah, there are other references that speak about the blessing of love. “I wanted to create an arc between prohibition and blessing; in between is the human story. That dash in G-d is where we should live,” DuBowski said.
In regards to how filmmaking changed him personally, DuBowski spoke about how he immersed himself in the tradition of the Orthodox culture. “I spent an enormous amount of time just being with people and sitting with the pain,” he said. “I became much more religious.”
While DuBowski did not direct Jihad for Love, he acted as a mentor and co-producer for director Parvez Sharma. In regards to his relationship with Sharma, DuBowski joked, “We have a Muslim and Jewish collaboration that is mostly non-violent.” A Muslim himself, Sharma was able to infuse his respect of Islam into the stories of the homosexuals struggling within that community. Jihad for Love depicts the lives of gay or lesbian Muslims who are not willing to give up their love of God, despite the religion’s apparent rejection of them. One gay man living in Egypt asked, “I want to know if Islam has room for this.”
The film showed in heartbreaking detail how non-secular Islamic nations like Iran brutally condemn any homosexual practices. The group of four men featured in the film had to flee Iran after suffering a hundred lashes as punishment for being caught at a gay party. Leaving their families behind, the men took refuge in Turkey where they awaited UN permission to travel to Canada. The film features real people who refuse to give up their passion for God despite the extreme hardships that accompany being homosexual and Islamic at this point in time. That was the most impressive point of this film; the couples and individuals whom Sharma choose to use in the film had more faith and religious conviction than many other people, even after they were being persecuted. DuBowski said that it was important for him to act as “an ally in this post 9/11 world.”
Since its release in 2002, Jihad for Love has also been screened all over the world, including in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia and Lebanon.  The German Green Party funded the Lebanon showing as the first of its kind in the Middle East. Both Sharma and DuBowski were very successful in illustrating the relationship between the very personal issue of homosexuality within the larger culture of these two religions. The lessons that can be learned from these films extend past the direct groups involved into all of our lives. “Our stories have universal power,” Dubowski said.
While not everyone believes that art is the best way to create political change, it is obvious based on the repercussions of these two films world wide that documentary can be a successful way to talk about important issues with a personal perspective. “For me, documentary puts a human face on what could be an abstract issue,” DuBowski said. “I could never do fiction – real life is too interesting.”