Writer and Filmmaker

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I’m a writer and filmmaker based in Vancouver, BC. On my filmmaker side I make narrative films and music videos. On my writing side I’ve published short stories, essays, and book reviews. I’ve also written novels, feature screenplays, and film theory that are just sitting on my computer as of now but I’d like to publish them too one day. That would be so cool. I love writing.

I’m currently researching and developing a feature film with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

You can read essays I’m writing as part of my research here.

I graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2018 with a BFA in Film and a Minor in Literature. Since then, I’ve been in VIFF’s Catalyst Program and had my work shown in festivals across the country and my writing published in magazines distributed all over North America. I’m now pursuing my MA in Cinema Studies at UBC.

This is really fun for me and I like doing it. I’m going to keep doing it. Thanks for reading. (Click Email to say you’re welcome). 

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Don’t Look!

On Weird Fear, Jewish Cinema, and Contemplation

One time, maybe five or six years ago, I felt moved to re-read the Torah. This was a weird urge. I had never been motivated to read it beyond deliberate instructions in school or synagogue. After I graduated high school, all things religious, but more specifically all things Jewish, felt incredibly embarrassing.

But the urge came roaring back one night, and I found myself moved to walk to beach, to listen to some music that frightened me, and to read something that frightened me even more. This is what I chose to read:

“And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount and the voice of a horn exceedingly loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mound. 

Now Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and the voice of God answered him…. the Lord said to him: ‘Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish.’ Moses said to the Lord: ‘The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’

…And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it they trembled…and they said unto Moses: ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But let not God speak with us, or we will die.’ Moses said unto the people: ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of god will be with you to keep you from sinning.’ The people remained and stood far off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.”

Marc Chagall, Moses recieving the Tablets of Law, 1966, oil on canvas

I don’t know why I wanted to be scared that night. I remember reading passages like this as a kid, passages to which I had learned songs. I imagined the thick darkness where God was, the void that Moses draws in to feel the weight of the law. I imagined how the visage of God would kill the children of Israel, the mountain that shuddered into a volcano with the smokey presence of the beyond. And I remember the type of terror that I felt at the ineffable being of a God that lived beyond this world, that was everywhere throughout this world. I remember the terror I beheld in my heart at the possibility he would rupture into my world and I would age one thousand years in a heartbeat and die before his judgement. And I remember this was the moment that the children of Israel became Jews, born into the world out of fear of the great beyond in the echoes of the majesty of the law and that, according to tradition, my soul was there too. And so even in the peace of a Yom Tov, a festival day, of a shabbos niggun, of the gentle shuckling of a sanctuary of ancient looking Jews, the squeezing of their skin through black strands of their teffilfin, the upward rising cry of a Yiddish voice in spiritual and communal joy there is fear ever present, clung to each of these moments, the residue of the terror of God’s revelation, sticking to my Shabbos dinners like oil in an empty bottle.

I wasn’t angry at this fear. The fear I felt reading that passage was the most Jewish I had felt in years.

I’ve always been attracted to media that has frightens me. By which I mean what is represented itself could be scary but it’s really the object of the media itself, the piece as a substance, holding the media (or the thought of it) that’s scaring me. Sometimes, this could mean their size. With pieces like these, though their contents could be thoroughly frightening, it’s really the extent of them the kind of scares me; the mystery of what they contain, the enormity of the creative act that extends to such lengths within them. Or sometimes it’s their reputation and context. One of my favourite movies ever The Dybbuk (1937) (which will deserve its own writeup someday soon) feels haunted in the very crystals that burned its light into eternity.

A photo from a stage version of The Dybbuk in Moscow, 1922

But more often than not I find myself loving simply whatever is made up of the dark, the terrifying, the weird, and the eerie. I don’t think my own perception of humanity or my own personal philosophy is nearly as hopeless or cynical as these pieces profess or represent yet what I love about Francis Bacon, Scott Walker, David Lynch, Alice Coltrane, Hieronymous Bosch, Jorge Luis Borges, Maya Deren and so many others is what scares me about them. What they channel seems to be knowledge from somewhere else, secret and hidden, an unstable endeavour of merging deep meditative creative expression and grasping mystic spiritual knowledge and thrusting that forth into secular reality and I can only be scared at that experiment. None of these pieces or artist mentioned necessarily make horror media (save perhaps for The Dybbuk) but they are frightening due to their proximity to seemingly impossible epistemologies and ontologies, as conduits for an experience that seems to come from the beyond and that is angry to be here.

Automatically, I “set [them] apart as holy” and when I see them, I tremble. I think that Judaism prepared my appreciation for the sensation of these artists and stories and images. Like their work, Judaism’s unique tradition of divine representation is specifically weird and terrifying.

I thought of the Jewish God when I read Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie last year:

“[The Weird] involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate…[The Weird] is abut trauma, in the sense that it concerns ruptures in the very fabric of experience itself…”

Fisher goes on to discuss Lovecraft in this chapter and notes that though he decried realism in his day he “contained or localized” it in his own work. Lovecraft wrote in 1927: “Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown — the shadow-haunted outside — we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.” Thereby we come toward Lovecraft (and the Weird’s) relationship with the impossible or the unrepresentable; Lovecraft’s descriptions “do not allow the reader to synthesize the logorrheic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image.”

H.P Lovecraft’s sketch of the impossible anatomy of his “Elder Things,” 1936

The rupture of God into the reality of Mount Sinai is frightening in the mode of the Weird, the people of Israel trembled at their perception of “the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking” and stood far away as Moses, their prophet or conduit through this rupture of an impossible entity “drew near unto the thick darkness.” I imagine this thick darkness both literally and as a metaphor, as a portal of sorts and as a void of understanding, a void of the representable. I read a Hasidic saying once that declared “there are those who serve God with their human intellect and others whose gaze is fixed on Nothing… he who is granted this supreme experience loses the reality of his intellect, but when he returns from such contemplation to the intellect, he finds it full of divine and inflowing splendour.”

We’re drawing closer to speaking of mysticism here and a specifically Jewish mysticism at that. Though all denomination of mystic practices are innately Weird, Judaism’s specifically channels knowledge and imagistic representation of what is routinely taught to be ineffable, amorphous, and impossible. In standing in that void as the mystic is thrown into “immediate contact with metaphysical reality (quoting Gershom Scholem, the modern pioneer of Jewish Mystic studies), the mystic enters the truly “boundless and hideous unknown” according to Lovecraft or “the thick darkness” according to the Torah. Scholem states: “Only when the soul has stripped itself of all limitation and descended into the depths of Nothing does one encounter the Divine.” And by Nothing, he means something, an ineffable and incomprehensible something that transcends human understanding.

With the concession that they can never truly understand the divine realm, Jewish Mystic movements try to apprehend something from nothing and try to elucidate definite images of worlds beyond this reality. I’ve read some Jewish mystic texts and they are filled with beautiful amoebic images of Divine realms. Images that are extraordinarily difficult to manifest and symphonize in your mind but images nevertheless with extraordinary theosophic, mythologic, and religious inferences. Jewish Mysticism has been historically shunned, censored, and ex-communicated by the normative Jewish tradition that I grew up in (which was nevertheless thoroughly inspired by the inescapable power of these images and spiritual theories) perhaps because of the mystic tendency toward imagination over doctrine, picture over law, a blasphemous approach toward the Godhead which has concealed itself from us on purpose.

Elliot R. Wolfson wrote an incredible book that I’m currently working through on the history of the Jewish image of God. He explains that “with very few exceptions Jews shunned the graphic representation of God, preferring language as the appropriate means to describe and characterize the divine nature. Even in the ancient world many outsiders were struck by the conspicuous fact that, especially in the area of worship, Judaism is a religion without images…[stressing] that the essential and exclusive medium of revelation was the divine voice and not a visible form.” We see that tendency in the Jews at Mount Sinai, at the foot of revelation, refusing to encounter the image of the divine and God himself forbidding them from seeing his mysteries. Yet the urge to know God by seeing him seems to be the principal endeavour of Jewish mystic practices through millennia. Their contemplative endeavours through ecstatic meditation and intensive study were in an effort to gain perception of appearances of God and images of Divine dimensions and to bolster these mystics own creative journey, a journey to outline the nebulous and numinous life of Jewish religious imagination and contemplate the secrets of the universe.

The Hebrew name of God taking the place of an actual image of him in a Sephardic manuscript (1385)

This is a remarkable challenge for a filmmaker, someone that deals in images and representation, and a challenge that I feel much of contemporary Jewish media sidesteps in favour of anxiety ridden verisimilitude. I understand why. Most of my Jewish upbringing, though consistently pocked by religious stories of Weird divine rupture, was characterized mainly by narratives of Jewish history. Slowly, the uncanny nature of our spiritual tradition was usurped by the warmth, wit, and tragedy of our historical legend. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Uncut Gems, Shiva Baby all, to varying degrees of success, charge themselves with examining the Jewish quotidian experience, and the rich surreality and weirdness of Jewish religious imagination seemingly falls away in these popular expressions of Jewishness. But I really long for cinema that encounters the immutable tension in the history of Jewish spiritual expression between the Weirdness of God or mystical searchings for divine images and rabbinic censorship thereof, and how that has influenced fear in the imaginations of young Jews everywhere; a need to know and to see, a refusal thereof, and the resulting sublime and traumatic Lacanian rupture.

The power of Jewish Weirdness makes its way into precious few films because it’s a difficult and nigh-on hypocritical endeavour. Our spiritual heritage is uniquely frightening and resists representation. How can one represent the unrepresentable, the “Wholly Other” with means that are wholly ours? How does one mechanically capture the inconceivable Real? To echo a question Gershom Scholem asked, “How is it possible to give lingual expression to mystical knowledge which by its very nature is related to a sphere where speech and expression are excluded?” Jewish Transcendental cinema is presented a task in contradictions.

I was moved to think about the possibilities of Jewish cinema when watching, funnily enough, a Zen Buddhist film. This was King Hu’s Touch of Zen (1971). It contains a representation of the unrepresentability of the transcendent realm in Weird ruptures to our dimension in a way to which I think Jewish cinema can look and aspire to.  The martial arts film tells the story of a kind but bumbling scholar who is caught in the battle between a female knight and a corrupt Court eunuch of the Emperor. This fight embroiled a Zen monastery and its powerful Abbot to protect the knight against the violent, imperial faction. The film is not overtly religious in nature until the end, which depicts a desert showdown between the evil commander of the eunuch’s army, the bumbling scholar, the knight, and the abbot. The abbot is wounded and the film’s unique spiritual power is most acute. 

See that the evil commander is dazed, the abbot stumbles away, and then the very substance of the film begins altering. Quick frenetic cuts between a dizzied commander and sparkling gold interrupt the, until now, patiently and intentionally edited film. The abbot finds his way to a hill. Suddenly, the sun blots out the camera lens, and the abbot reveals that his wound is seeping golden blood. He wanders into the sunlight until the unbearable exposure of the sky begins to affect the actual film capturing it, flickering and sputtering, and then physically corrupting to its own negative. The frenzied cutting heightens, the fabric of the technology that has faithfully captured the narrative degrades further as the heroes overcome their obstacles and regard the abbot as best they can through the ruined of their eyes. We regard the abbot as he transforms into the Buddha, the light of his halo burning a light through the camera even as we fade to black.

I’m fascinated by the manner in which divinity is represented here both positively and negatively, that divinity is present and beyond. Immanent and transcendent. Real and Weird. Possible and Impossible. It is terrifying in its power, rupturing the very fabric of that which tries to represent it. Nothing and So Much that it breaks the mechanical means with which an artist has tried to express it. With this scene, I was reminded of the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, God immanent and within a void, too powerful to behold and therefore they cannot behold him. Only through the conduit of language can an image of him be grasped and since cinema is a medium made of time and reality, it breaks the technology with which that time and reality can be captured when God, in his rupture, breaks that time and reality. This is the type of God that I learned of as a kid, and this is what I want Jewish cinema to aspire to.

Touch of Zen distills with this scene what I find fearful in great art: the way they become distended, surreal, and exceptional in the face of enormous creative and spiritual truths. When I hold works by the artists I mentioned above I’m scared of their instability, their nearness to a zone that is wholly volatilely Weird, Other, and Transcendent. 

But I found myself remembering one film from my religious tradition that I saw as a kid which did eventually exemplify a God like this; maybe even as powerfully as the Torah did for me and maybe inspiring my desire to be scared by art’s proximity to the beyond: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Raiders begins with the goal of being as readable, recognizable, and digestible as possible, as thorough an expression of Hollywood realism as it gets, held comfortably by the symbols of a clear and present adventure genre that is universally identifiable. Our swashbuckling hero travels the globe represented so literally that we see the directions and layovers of his journey to hunt for holy artifacts in bright red lines. But Spielberg abstracts the film at its climax with a rupture of the Jewish Weird in a movement of furious Jewish religious supremacism, a powerful expression of vengeance against both Nazi Germany and Christian America.

This is a story starring Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr. (as non-Jewish a name as you could imagine) who is every bit the ideal of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American hero: handsome, athletic, comfortable in tweed in the halls of academe, following in the footsteps of his immigrant father, the blue-blooded champion of the American Dream. This thoroughly American caricature is pitted against the burgeoning Nazi empire, itself a caricature of evil, in a race to find the Ark of the Covenant, the chest containing the very revelation we began this essay with, the law that God bestowed unto his people Israel, the artifact with which the Israelites became Jews. Indy finds it, a struggles ensues, it swaps hands until the Nazis set to test out the Ark’s power as Hitler intends to use it as a super-weapon to end the war before it even begins.

The “immediate contact with a metaphysical reality” breaks down the Hollywood realism the film went to such lengths to set up. The Nazis open the Ark and the vast gulf between the sphere of man and the sphere of the divine closes; and roaring through this portal is the furious might of the Jewish God from the “boundless and hideous unknown.” Firstly, like in Touch of Zen, the film technology that the Nazis have set up breaks down in a shower of sparks. For this is an ineffable God and so, by his nature he is beyond time and he refuses to be imprisoned by a machine that can capture, as  Andrei Tarkovsky once said, “an impression of time” and “preserved in a metal box, theoretically forever.” The Jewish God electrocutes those metal boxes and impales those Nazis who dare to capture him and dominate him and, eventually, his people. Their hubris that they can wield the Jewish God is their doom; they regard the glowing spirits that tumble out of the Ark, the growing flame that burns just above the portal. But Indiana Jones instead bows his head at this divine might and is spared, marking the doorpost of his soul with the blood of his humility and the Jewish God passes over him and he survives. The Nazis are consumed in a death of unspeakable pain, the heavens open up, their souls are shot violently into the belly of God’s judgement, the Ark is closed, and the appendage of imperial America can open his eyes. The proof of God’s terror thoroughly marking him. Evil forces have been vanquished and a cultural supremacy humbly bowed its head, closed its eyes, and backed away.

This is a direct echo of the awesome divine might found in the Torah, as literally represented as any other Jewish film I’ve ever seen. I’d go as far as to say that even with Schindler’s List and The Fabelmans in his filmography, this scene makes Raiders of the Lost Ark the most Jewish film Steven Spielberg ever made. This movie is one of very few that challenges itself to manifest the impossible and immanent terror of the essentially Jewish beyond (though I’ve found some other incredible examples, that’ll be a subject for a future essay). Though this movie begins in the oft found Jewish verisimilitude, in palpable anger at the very real tragedies of Jewish history, within this scene it bubbles into a spiritual revenge film, a fantasy of punishment, a mystical Jewish vision of an alternate history in an enraged spiritual plea with all of the Torah’s supremacist and exceptional intimations channeled through its Weird and transcendent metaphysic power. This is a strange and unique film and as a kid I beheld this scene with the same fear that I felt in my contemplation of the God of the Torah, taught to me in passages of sublime horror. Because finally I saw in film that same God.

So, one night five or six years, ago I sat and contemplated the frightful Torah once again. Embarrassment gave way to fear and then to creative inspiration, and that night set in motion the creative journey that I’m now embarking on. Judaism has a funny way of clinging to you. In my adult life my religious observance waned and set and nearly disappeared and yet the undying soul of Jewishness still secretly guided my concepts of self and spiritual feeling. The spiritual sensations that I felt at the art that excited me, the fear that I contemplated on as I encountered them — that was a thoroughly Jewish activity! And so somehow a religion (read: a set of moral and ethical systems, dogma, and laws) was just as inextricable with the personality of a presumed non-adherent to those systems and laws as it was with an adherent. In skeptic anger and religious embarrassment, I tried to shake off my Judaism but in that perpetual state of searching and throwing away, of vowing and disavowing, I reached some sort of equilibrium of personhood. I think that might be the makeup of the contemporary Jew: an abiding and fearful questioning that lives within the spirituality and faith that religion promises and vice versa.

I think that we can call the questioning “contemplation” which is apparently a time honoured Jewish spiritual tradition from the Temple period and beyond. This contemplation has become the fulcrum of my practice. Contemplation on art, theory, history, and spirituality. I can’t grasp the feelings that arise in me in these acts of contemplation or apprehend their meaning. But I don’t need the meaning, it’s the sensation that I’m after. In my research, it’s not necessarily facts or ideas that I’m gathering to appear literally in my work but the feeling from the contemplation of those facts and ideas; all shades of that shapeless sensation that arises from my inquiry, that’s what finds its way into my creative work.

So I contemplate the trepidation, the confusion, the sadness, and the epiphanies, but most importantly the fear; the fear that can be represented and the fear that can only be encountered. When I examine intrinsically Jewish habits and ways of thinking, I can notice the implications of mystic, ritual, and spiritual fear that has imbued itself into my identity. So, I ask myself what to do when superstition entangles with my rational brain? How can I grow when I can’t evade my upbringing no matter where I turn? Since it is, in a sense, what is turning me.

- April 23, 2023