Connecting in a Spiritual Void

Filmmaker Sandi Simcha Dubowski on the characters' displacement and search for connection in 'Lost in Translation.'

BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips

 
Sandi Simcha Dubowski has become almost as well-known during the past several years as the movie he directed, "Trembling Before G-d." The film, a documentary about Hasidic and Orthodox Jews who are gay, premiered at Sundance in 2001, later was released in theaters, and continues to be screened at film festivals around the world.

Dubowski brought his awareness of the alienation and displacement felt by the people in his own film to a discussion of "Lost in Translation," the Oscar-nominated film by Sophia Coppola. The movie captures the friendship between two Americans, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who meet in a hotel in Japan. Though they meet sleepless, displaced in a foreign country, and alienated by both the surrounding culture and their own loved ones, the relationship that develops in their short time together seems to leave Bob and Charlotte more hopeful about life.


You told me that you really identified with this movie. Can you tell me why?

We're living in a world of very few markers. As someone who has been traveling in a concentrated way for three years, I can completely identify with that discombobulation and dislocation as you move across all these cultural and religious and sexual way stations. I guess I feel like I'm sort of a global nomad.

Do you think there is something inherently spiritual about that experience--about being a foreigner, or about traveling in general?

During those moments of road loneliness, and the feeling that we're all moving from one tribal place to another, the world just seems kind of large and voluminous and massive. You're just this little dot that has been tossed and wandering. I was in Hong Kong with "Trembling" in December, and you know, especially in that part of the world, to be Jewish feels like such an anomaly. You feel, who are you and do you matter at all? You cling to people in different ways as you travel.

I think the normal ego supremacy of being in your world has to translate into some kind of humility in the face of others. That's the spiritual process. For me spirituality is about, in some ways, shattering your ego and letting it be open to breaking the normal pattern of everyday life and allowing insights to enter that wouldn't normally be present. But I think it takes a certain receptivity to the world around you, which gets heightened in sort of a spiritual experience.

It seems like your own spiritual reactions to travel are based on your interactions with other people--meeting new people in the places you go. In the movie, the two main characters barely interacted with anyone else.

Right. There you're like seeing more of the gulf.

Do you think that gulf is specific to Japan? Could Sophia Coppola have made the same movie in another country?

I don't think that movie would have worked in Paris. In some ways it was a movie that was nowhere and everywhere. And it was a movie that was also in a hotel. The hotel has its own logic and its own world and it's endlessly reproducible in any city in the world. But it's so funny that the familiarity of the hotel---whether that be in Singapore or Tokyo or Pittsburgh or Rio--doesn't matter. In some ways, the hotel, the reassurance of comfort, becomes a spiritually empty void. You know, that's so much of what our society is about right now.

It's about comfortable, but spiritually empty places?

Well, it's about taking these mass-produced voids and trying to imbue them with a sense of connection and sense of spiritual regeneration. This movie's spiritually empty void was set in a city that both of these people couldn't find a way to make personal. It's like the sense of public space is alienating. But it's also comforting and reassuring, like the thought, "Oh, I love walking into Starbucks because I know exactly what I'm going to get." But at the same, how alienating to just live in a series of Starbucks and hotels without a sense of community or connection!

I think what they're saying is that this loss of connection can happen at any age, too. One's in her 20s and one is middle aged. They are both going through crises. The movie makes the observation that we're all a little bit lost, in some transition or translation.

Continued on page 2: »

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