Monday, May 30, 2005

Keep Not Silent (but it will cost you)

"Orthodox lesbian" may sound like a contradiction in terms, but there are organizations of lesbians who identify as orthodox Jews in several cities around the world . They call themselves OrthoDykes. Keep Not Silent is a film about three women in Jerusalem who struggle with lesbian and orthodox identities.

Ilil Alexander directs the film, which takes the viewer inside the women's lives, their families, and the Orthodox communities in which they live. Yehudit is young, single, and very well educated religiously, and she speaks passionately in a conversation in which she argues Torah with her rabbi. She is determined to live out her identity with her partner in a monogamous, open life, and the film documents her process of coming out to family, of seeking a new life with her partner, and of somehow maintaining her values in the process, values she learned in the orthodox community in Jerusalem. It is a costly decision.

Miriam Esther occupies the other extreme of the spectrum: she has chosen to marry in a conventional marriage, and to simply accept that she cannot act upon her feelings and that she is unlikely ever to have sexual feelings towards her husband. She is the mother of ten, and like Yehudit, her decision is costly. She is afraid to speak to the filmmaker, for fear that someone will find out about her and her children's lives will be ruined. She is resigned to her life, but one gets the feeling she is not at peace with it. The most heart-wrenching story, though, is that of Ruth, a woman who has both a husband and a woman lover.

The film is deeply moving, sometimes upsetting, but it offers a view inside ultra-orthodoxy and the difficulties of resolving minority identities within that world. Viewers on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, may be irritated that the filmmaker presents everyone in the film in the kindest possible light. By doing this, however, she demonstrates the tragedy that results from the denial of identity, and of well-meaning attempts to see lesbian and gay identity as a "phase" that can be "cured" with marriage.

If you have seen Trembling Before God, and think that you have already covered this topic, I suggest that this is a much stronger film. This is a much less polemic film, and it does an excellent job of conveying not only the confinement of Orthodox life, but also the beauty of it. It also deals with family and children, which are largely ignored in the more famous film.

Keep Not Silent won the Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for Best Documentary, and it is every bit as good as that implies. Thumb's up, if you can find it!

Keep Not Silent is distributed in the U.S. by Women Make Movies.


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