Shawn Snyder admits he’s never fully embraced some of the customs that stemmed from his Florida upbringing in a Reform Jewish household.
When his mother died about 10 years ago, the young filmmaker’s faith was put to the ultimate test. The strict bereavement timeline — from shiva to burial to moving on — didn’t mesh with his psychological state.
Eventually, Snyder channeled his conflicting emotions into a cathartic comedy about grief, religion, science, and body decomposition. The resulting film, To Dust, marks his feature directorial debut.
“Those rituals are beautiful and profound and life-affirming, even in the face of death. When thrust into my own grief, I found honoring her in that way to be poignant and important. But I still found the confines to be somewhat insufficient,” Snyder said by phone. “Ten years on, my grief is still very present and always evolving. Grief is incredibly personal. We should be allowed to grieve in a way that works for us.”
The film follows Shmuel (Geza Rohrig), a devoutly Hasidic cantor who struggles with the accelerated timelines for mourning his wife’s death. He becomes obsessed and haunted by her body’s decomposition, and enlists the help of a beleaguered science professor (Matthew Broderick) to help ensure her corpse is preserved for as long as possible after burial, by whatever means necessary.
During his own mourning process, Snyder’s thoughts wandered toward the appearance of his mother’s corpse after a week, a month, or a year.
“As a culture, we have very unhealthy relationships with death, so I repressed those feelings,” he said. “There might be some beauty in shattering that taboo and getting more comfortable with grief, but there also might be some spiritual beauty in that biological process.”
During research for the script, Snyder began exploring forensic anthropology, which studies the decomposition of human remains. He visited two “body farms,” including one at Freeman Ranch in San Marcos, where researchers analyze decaying cadavers.
“I felt very beholden to the scientific accuracy and to the religious accuracy,” said Snyder, who earned a religion degree from Harvard before attending film school at NYU. “My hope was that somewhere the science would cross over with the religion, but I just didn’t know how. It was an eye-opening and beautiful journey.”
Snyder said humor is a natural coping mechanism, which is why he embraced the absurdity in Shmuel’s dilemma. Yet he doesn’t want to denounce Hasidism, as other projects have done.
“It’s always intended to respect the community and not to lampoon,” Snyder said. “A lot of Hasidic films are about the individual who is oppressed and their success is measured in whether they escape. I wanted to make a movie about a man who loves the community that he came from and wants to reconcile with his faith.”
In 2015, the screenplay won a $100,000 grant for debut filmmakers from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. And later, it garnered support from established actors such as Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola, and Ron Perlman, who came aboard as producers.
Meanwhile, Snyder met with Rohrig (Son of Saul) about making his English-language debut in the lead role. The Hungarian actor comes from an Orthodox Jewish family, and even has done work for a Jewish burial society.
Rohrig’s enthusiasm provided validation for Snyder, who hopes To Dust avoids didacticism in tackling universal issues through specific scenarios.
“We wanted the film to ask more questions than it intended to answer. There’s a purposeful ambiguity, so audience members can engage with it in ways that work for them,” Snyder said. ““We all have to deal with loss, and have to find our own way through that. It was cathartic for me, sort of an excuse for therapy through art.”