'To Dust' - A Jewish Cantor and a Biology Teacher Walk into A Body Farm

Mar 11, 2019

South Florida filmmaker and folk musician Shawn Snyder’s new film "To Dust" explores faith and mortality through an unlikely partnership. Géza Röhrig, star of the Oscar winning film “Son of Saul,” plays a Jewish cantor named Schmuel who recently lost his wife to cancer. Shmuel continues to have nightmares about his wife’s corpse and wants to better understand the process of it returning to the earth.

Shmuel befriends a stoner biology teacher at the local community college named Albert, played by Matthew Broderick. Albert teaches Shmuel about the scientific process of decomposition and along the way takes him to a body farm and to bury a pig. The dark comedy already has won the audience award at the Tribecca Film Festival. It will be screening at a number of theaters across South Florida beginning this week.

Sundial’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Snyder as well as Röhrig, who was in South Florida for the film’s release, about the importance of the story, the science of forensic anthropology and the reactions they’ve gotten from audiences thus far.

WLRN: Where did the inspiration for this come from? Why did you want to tell this story?  

Snyder: There are a lot of sort of latent threads throughout my life that took a long time to intersect with this very odd, specific and deeply personal movie. But the sort of emotional core and the earliest foundations of it come from my own experiences with grief. I lost my mom 10 years ago to melanoma down here in South Florida. And I come from a Reform Jewish background, which certainly isn't a Hassidic background. And yet there is a Jewish way of grieving. And there's timelines and rituals and guideposts through that process of mourning and I've always found those timelines, sort of that Jewish way of mourning, to be incredibly profound and wise and life-affirming in the face of loss. And yet this experience was of my own grief spilling outside of the boundaries of that and needing its own expression. So the movie very much is how do we deal with our cultures of origin? How do we find meaning and an idiosyncratic way alongside that or atop that?

I think it's really good to understand the foundation of this faith and why the decomposition of a body into the earth is so significant to the beliefs. Geza, help us understand that.

Röhrig: Well the idea here is that he's being visited by these nightmares. Right. He keeps seeing that his wife's body's decay is not as fast or as smooth as it should be. He has visions and all that. So he's very bothered by the fact that her travel to the other side somehow is being stopped or slowed down. And first he wants to help her as much as he can, but later on this becomes almost threatening to him. He could lose his mind in this. Meanwhile he's a father of two, which means he has to be responsible for his sons. So this is a journey of healing.

I view this very odd and unlikely friendship that he formed with Robert played by Matthew Broderick. They both have to step out from their comfort zone. Generally these folks don't meet. One is a Hasidic Jew and the other one is a pot smoker, biology teacher at a community college. But somehow they are both lost souls and they have so much to give to each other. I find the movie quite realistic in this way, I think  when we go through really hard and dark times I think we formed relationships which we wouldn't necessarily do at other times of our lives.

At one point there's a scene where the two of you go to a body farm in Tennessee and this is to learn about how bodies decompose. And you know these places really do exist. But what did you know about all of this, by the way, Géza, before you started filming?

Röhrig: Well I knew about the somatic aspect of death actually quite a lot because I was without a green card for eight years in this country. And one way that I was able to keep myself over the water is that I washed dead bodies. It's a ritual Orthodox thing. Male bodies have to be washed before, just like a newborn baby, in a dignified way to prepare them for the big journey. And so that part  I was familiar with, but I did not at all know that there are such things as body farms.

Snyder: I visited two [body farms]. They were incredibly generous and gracious with their time and their insight. They were official scientific advisers on the film, but I couldn't cross that fence to see the bodies. There are seven in the United States and the seventh is in Florida. It's up north of Tampa, and they're all based on climate regions and they're to understand human decomposition for specifically forensic criminology and to sort of advance science and our understanding of that for the ends of justice. And they're just fascinating places in that the sciences is so young and it's moving at such a breakneck pace that you ultimately realize there are an increasingly infinite number of factors that inform how any individual body is going to decay.