Two 20-something filmmakers go inside the lives of gay Jewish women striving to stay connected to their Orthodox community.
In their compelling documentary, DEVOUT, 20-something filmmakers Diana Neille from South Africa and Sana Gulzar from Pakistan follow the lives of seven women trying to reconcile their homosexuality with their commitment to Orthodox Judaism. Each of the main characters, located in New York and New Jersey, struggles to find some way to stay connected to her Jewish community and faith, despite the fact that Orthodox Judaism has always condemned homosexuality in the harshest terms. Find out how Chani, Pam, Elissa, Hayley, Lina, and Miriam deal with being “unacceptable” while still remaining devoted to their strict faith and community.
Watch a clip from the film: www.diananeille.com
Neither one of you is Jewish. What made you want to tell this story?
Diana: In November 2010, I was searching for a compelling idea for a documentary for my master’s project at Columbia’s journalism school. I’d selected central Brooklyn as “my beat” and spent a lot of time in Boro Park. The first time I went there, it was a blazing Saturday night in August, and I wore a strappy top to keep up with New York fashion in the heat. I somehow stumbled onto the main street of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood just as shul was finishing and families were exiting. As a Christian girl from Johannesburg, South Africa, I had many Jewish friends and acquaintances, but had never seen Hasidim. I was curious about them—so curious that I didn’t immediately notice that I was being eyeballed myself, for my immodest clothing. One Hasid even shielded his small son’s eyes as they hurried past me.
So you were interested in Orthodox Jews; what then led you to focus on gay members of the community?
Diana: At the time, there were several ghastly attacks on gay men in the Bronx, which were widely reported on in the media. There was also gubernatorial campaign frenzy and, in an effort to win the Jewish vote, Republican Carl Paladino had enlisted the help of Rabbi Yehuda Levin (well known for his conviction that gay people are the cause of natural disasters) to write a speech for the synagogue in which he stated that children should not be “brainwashed” into thinking homosexuality is acceptable. I reported the story, quickly realizing what a contentious issue this was in the frum Jewish community. The more reporting I did, the more I wanted to learn about the seeming anomaly of being gay and Jewish, particularly for women. It turns out it’s not an anomaly. In December, I met Sana in our documentary seminar, and she was also interested in the story, so we paired up to produce, direct, and edit what would become DEVOUT.
One of the gay women in the film, Pam, says, “I accept that Torah says this is a sin and this is wrong. Torah also says that it is wrong to curse. There are some things I can change about myself and some I can’t.” Do you get the sense from other gay people you talked to that they accept the idea that being gay is a “sin”?
Sana: During the making of the film, we did not come across many from the gay community who said that to us. Most of the time—and especially in the case of gay women—they said it is not as black and white as some might believe it is for men. And we also came across a lot of interpretations of the Torah and the Talmud that were more accepting of the gay community. So you can imagine that it was a very surprising moment for us when Pam said this. Later she also says “being gay is as essential to my soul as being a Jew.” In a way these two quotes sum up the essence of our entire documentary because the women we profiled are all deeply religious and observant Jews, and they struggle with the idea that the religion that they are devoted to shuns them. Yet they remain committed to it in every aspect of their lives.
Chani, another main character in the film, says that she likes the commitment that orthodoxy gives Jews, but not the rigidity. Do you get a sense that the rigidity will change over time or that it is what it is?
Sana: The rigidity comes from all these pressures gay women, like Chani, face in their communities. Some had to change synagogues they attended; some had to move their children to another school; and some lost contact with their families after coming out. So, essentially, what Chani meant is that she wants acceptance from her religious community so she won’t feel compelled to break away. This rigidity might lessen in that gay women would not be completely ostracized anymore.
Also, there are many forums and platforms where gay Orthodox Jews are coming together and talking about their struggles rather than keeping them secret. As a result, you see the Orthodox rabbis and religious leaders slowly trying to interact with this community. However, within the ultra-Orthodox communities, it might still be a long way to go.
What was the most challenging part of making this film for you, both emotionally and in terms of getting it completed?
Diana: One was getting members of the Jewish community who weren’t gay or pro-gay to talk to us, which I guess sounds obvious. Here we were, two women—neither of us Jewish—trying to get Orthodox rebbe and congressmen to talk to us! Not going to happen. All our many phone calls to synagogues in Brooklyn ended abruptly at the secretary. We so badly wanted to show the Jewish community respect and report the story in as fair a way as possible, but we never got a chance to talk with Jewish leaders, which I tried not to make me feel bitter. In the end we had to focus on the Modern Orthodox community and not the Hasidic, as we’d originally hoped. In spite of it all, I feel confident we got more or less to the crux of the matter, and we answered the question we set out to answer—how do you stay true to who you are when your faith condemns you?
How do you feel your attitudes have changed in the process of making the film?
Diana: Well I certainly know a lot more about Judaism than I did in 2009! I’m even singing in a synagogue choir here in Johannesburg, much to the amused puzzlement of my family. I’m not planning on changing faiths or anything, but I must say I am still fascinated by Jewish culture. I think more than that, my attitude towards the LGBTQ community has changed somewhat. I’ve always been a very tolerant person, but I grew up in a very conservative household—and South Africans are generally pretty conservative people, too. So making DEVOUT really opened my eyes to extreme devotion to a religion that I personally think demands an incredible amount of discipline and self-sacrifice. Making the film opened my thinking about sexuality and my awareness of the boundaries we place around each other according to our own beliefs and upbringing.
For more information about the film and where you can see it, visit devoutthefilm.blogspot.com.
About the Author
Diana Neille is a 25-year-old multimedia journalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the executive multimedia producer at eNews Channel Africa, South Africa’s premiere free-to-air, commercial television station, 24-hour news broadcaster, and online news platform. Diana has worked as a production assistant at Storyville Films in New York City on the project Makers, a multi-platform PBS production that tells the compelling story of women’s advancement in America over the past 50 years. She also worked for a short time in the multimedia department at Reuters in New York, where she helped produce content related to the 9/11 10th anniversary and New York Fashion Week 2011.
Sana Taskeen Gulzar is a 27-year-old broadcast journalist from Pakistan, where, for the past eight years, she has been associated with the leading news channels and outlets in the country. Sana is currently a producer at the British Broadcasting Corporation, working from Islamabad, Pakistan, as part of the launch team of the first-ever TV show for the BBC Urdu Service. A Fulbright scholar, Sana completed her master’s degree in broadcast journalism with a major in documentary filmmaking from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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