2016-06-30
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.

It seems "Lost in Translation" shares some themes with your own movie, specifically that of being an outsider, of connecting to a new person or a new community. Did that occur to you while you were watching it?
Well, I do think there is this common root or theme of just yearning to belong. But what's different is that the characters in "Lost in Translation" don't necessarily have any ideology. If you tried to explain what is their ideology, what's their cultural or spiritual identity, you would be hard-pressed to articulate it. It seems like a generalized, Western, secular, educated, artistic sort of living.

What's different with "Trembling" is that the people in the film really are connecting to a thousands-of-years-old tradition, which really guides both their outer practice and inner life and through that gives such meaning to their life. So I think the meaning of life is really rich and full and yet feels quite empty for the characters in "Lost in Translation." I wonder if the people in "Trembling" would in some ways identify more with the Japanese, depicted as living in a world of tradition, than they would with Bob and Charlotte.

You're right that we don't understand the characters' ideologies at all. We don't really know anything about them. Instead, the movie presents this bland one-sided spirituality with no real depth or tradition behind it. Yet it's being embraced as the spiritual movie of our time, or at least of our year. What does that say about spirituality in America?
Well, though they don't have strong ideologies, I was incredibly moved by the characters--their confusion and their halting hesitations and their need to reach out to each other in this comfort zone as the distances that they have from their loved ones grow. In some ways, that didn't matter to me in watching the film because I was just swept away with just the little micro-turns of their intimacy.

There is something when these grand ideologies fall away. I was in Mexico and I went to every Diego Rivera mural I could in Mexico City, I went to the Leon Trotsky museum. It brought me back to the 1930s, when the idea that communism could sweep the earth and lift up everyone's life and revolution was in the air. We're just not living in those times--of communism, of socialism, of Zionism. We're living in the fraught end games of all of our sort of large, sweeping, global, passionate ideologies. So the movie feels like the time that we are living in. Yes, religious fundamentalism is sweeping the globe, and mass capitalism, but that's not hopeful. It's apocalyptic. This movie just fits the time.

Maybe they need each other because they don't belong to any communities with ideology or tradition, or they feel very alienated by the ones they're surrounded by.
I think we yearn to belong to meaningful communities. If they were offered to those people in the film, I wonder if they would be drawn to them. I can imagine a scene of some sort of religious ritual in the hotel ball room and Scarlet transfixed watching it and then someone led her by the arm into the circle, and she willingly went, giggling nevertheless, but she went and felt like she belonged. I can see that scene completely unfolding in the film.

But there is a scene where she goes to a Buddhist temple and then comes back and reports that she didn't feel anything. She tries to experience the spiritual community there, but she still feels this sense of displacement.
Exactly, because what she observed was an intensely private, intensely contemplative, intensely distanced religion and ritual. And it mirrored exactly where she was. So I think something a little more ecstatic would have been good for her--like a bar mitzvah, a Hasidic wedding. The Buddhist ritual is set up as a form of displacement.

Americans make Buddhism into the ego reflection of who they are. And the minute that religion doesn't become just a mirror of our own existence but something that actually has to challenge us and confront us, it's not American anymore. It's not easy. But yeah, Americans have reshaped Buddhism, too, to sort of sit with them without judgment. So the idea that it could criticize at all some aspect of our life is like mind boggling. So I guess the movie did, in some sense, retain a very Asian form of Buddhism that wasn't American-friendly.

What do you think happened to them when they got back home?
I think they probably sent some emails to each other. I think that they continued on because they got absorbed back into their worlds again. I'd be curious to check in with them 10 years later.

As a filmmaker is there anything in this movie that you would have done differently?
No. Everything, I loved--the camera movements, the music, the way sound sort of weaves in and out, the emotional tone of the film. The way that the director sat with performance and allowed people's performance to emerge with Bill Murray and Scarlett, I really thought it was beautifully, beautifully done.

It's incredibly sensitive directing. The ability to make a film about two displaced people and to hold our interest and deepen our connection with these two people... I don't know... bravo. Just bravo.



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