Zvi Landsman’s documentary The Therapy (May 1, 12:15 pm) opens with a scene so bizarre it would be easy to assume you’re watching a narrative feature, but be assured it’s only too real. A group of men are sitting in what appears to be a stock room. One is aggressively questioned, covered by a green and yellow quilt, and tied up, while all the while the questioning and accusations becomes more and more abusive. Welcome to conversion therapy, Orthodox Jewish style.
Conversion therapy, which attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity, has been condemned by a number of professional organizations as both harmful and ineffective, and outlawed in some states. Yet it is still practiced, today often in the “kinder and gentler” form of talk therapy, a method pioneered in the United States. Conversion therapy came a bit later to Israel, with the first conversion organization in that country founded in 2001. The good news is that, as of 2022 conversion therapy has been banned by the Israeli Health Ministry. The bad news is that a lot of damage can be done in 20 years, and there’s no guarantee conversion therapy will cease just because the government says it should—one can always call it something else, for instance.
Landsman, who had extraordinary access to footage of actual therapy sessions, follows the stories of two men in conversion therapy. Lev, age 54, knew he had same-sex desires when he was a university student. Hoping to change himself, he immersed himself in the religious community, got married, and had six children. But his old desires hadn’t gone away, and he started watching gay porn on the Internet. His wife found out and filed for divorce, spelling out in the divorce papers exactly what he’d been doing. His rabbi recommended a therapist, and he’s now been in conversion therapy for 8 years.
Lev hopes to hoping to rid himself of same-sex desires and remarry, because in his current state, he’s not only sexually deprived, but also an outsider to his community. This is highlighted by footage of his daughter’s wedding—everyone else is losing themselves in a collective expression of joy, while he remains on the fringes of the party, unable to join in and acutely aware of his separation.
Ben, age 23, has spent 7 years in conversion therapy but has come to question its validity. Growing up in the Orthodox community, he was taught that homosexuality was a fault to be cured, and was expelled from a yeshiva due to his attraction to another student. Then he went to university, where he studied social work, and now does research into conversion therapy. He’s young, and sufficiently at home in the secular world to make a life for himself that simply isn’t available to Lev, but he’s also heavily influenced by his upbringing, and it’s hard to be the one that’s different in a world where so much of life revolves around marriages and children.
Apart from the opening group therapy scene, and some heated discussion in the Knesset, The Therapy is a remarkably calm film, in contradistinction to some other anti-conversion therapy films on the market. In some sense that makes what’s actually happening even more horrifying—intelligent, educated people are having calm conversations with the goal of changing something fundamental about a person who, except for a cultural prohibition, could be living a perfectly fine, productive, happy life already. | Sarah Boslaugh
All QFest films will be shown at the Galleria 6 Cinema in Richmond Heights. Individual tickets are $15 for general admission and $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID; five-film passes and all-access passes are also available. The shorts programs and two features—The Unabridged Mrs. Vera’s Daybook and Two Eyes—are also available for home viewing in Missouri and Illinois from April 29 through May 5. Proof of full vaccination or a negative PCR test from the previous 72 hours is required for in-person screenings. Further information is available from the Cinema St. Louis website.