Director Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s haunting debut feature, Rewind, is a documentary about a crime – a whole litany of crimes, really, each one more monstrous than the last – but it is not a true-crime documentary in the usual sense. Neulinger is no third-party chronicler but one of the principal victims. The film only gradually reveals the terrible abuses that were perpetrated on Neulinger and his younger sister when they were children. However, Rewind does not treat its subject as a twisty mystery designed to elicit gasps of disbelief from the viewer. Like Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death (2007) and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), Neulinger’s film is an excavation of sorts into the director’s family history. In this case, however, that history is hardly obscure to the filmmaker, as the abuses in question (and the public legal battles that followed) had a profound effect on his life.
Rewind is the sort of inward-focused study that is particularly well suited to the medium of film. Neulinger practically grew up on camera, his father, Henry, having captured seemingly every waking minute of their family’s busy life with an always-present home-video camera. (The remove that Dad was able to attain by peering at the world through the camera’s lens was, it turns out, a coping method for his own unsettled trauma.) Accordingly, there are untold hours of fuzzy video footage chronicling the family’s birthday parties, Thanksgivings, High Holidays, and backyard cookouts – not to mention the innumerable banal moments that Henry felt compelled to document. Now approaching 30, Neulinger decides to revisit this record of his childhood, in the hope (or is it fear?) of finding signs of the abuse that was being committed just outside the frame. Whether this will provide any closure or illumination is an open question, as is whether such an endeavor will ultimately end up re-traumatizing Neulinger. His stance when approaching his father’s treasure trove of footage is that of a grim archaeologist, compelled by curiosity but dead certain that he will find hidden vipers within.
Jennifer Fox recently approached her own childhood abuse through auto-fiction in her devastating narrative feature The Tale (2018). Neulinger’s film has some similarities to that film, but it follows a more traditional documentary path, straddling the boundary between dogged journalism and harrowing self-reflection. In addition to sifting through his father’s home-video library, the director interviews his immediate family members, the child psychologist who counseled him, and the police detectives and prosecuting attorneys who worked his case. Neulinger returns to his paternal grandparents’ old house, to a weeping cherry tree that once held special significance, and to the wood-paneled courtroom where he confronted his abusers. With each conversation and discovery, more memories surface, crowding around the filmmaker (and the viewer) insistently. In some instances, it becomes difficult to reconcile the lively, often goofy home-video footage with the horrors that Neulinger and his sister endured. Most of the time, however, the videos reveal with startling clarity the evil that was standing right in front of Neulinger’s family all along.
The footage that Neulinger has assembled is disturbing, often unexpectedly so. There are plenty of unnerving instances where the abusers – all of them beloved family members – tousle the children’s hair roughly or let slip an unintentionally revealing wisecrack, but these moments tend to be creepy only in hindsight. The figure that truly startles is the younger version of Sasha: a pudgy, precocious kid who seethes with profane, self-loathing rage, frequently lashing out unexpectedly at his parents and sister. Even a lay observer can tell that something awful is gnawing away at the child that Neulinger once was, which only amplifies the devastating guilt that the filmmaker’s parents still shoulder about their own obliviousness.
Just as unsettling as the video footage are the drawings that Neulinger’s childhood psychologist proffers: horrific scenes of abuse that Sasha rendered in crayon and marker when asked to illustrate his feelings, dreams, and recollections. The abstraction of a child’s scribblings arguably heightens rather than diminishes their repellent obscenity: blood and feces, phalluses and anuses, misery and murder. In one drawing, a hanged man urinates blood, a woman is impaled on a bed of spikes, and a scarlet devil cackles from within a raging inferno. Neulinger recalls some of these drawings vividly; others he has no memory of creating. In this and other respects, Rewind often feels like the mirror image of David Carr’s searing 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which the late columnist delved into his past drug addiction as if it were a story that happened to someone else. Carr preferred to forget – or selectively edit – his past, but Neulinger cannot forget the abuses that were inflicted on him, despite the natural imperfections of memory. They are part of him now.
Rewind loses some of its dark meta-documentary allure in its final stretch, as Neulinger turns away from his film’s more interrogative and introspective aspects to follow the story of his abusers’ arrest and prosecution. Here the true-crime conventions that the film has mostly resisted start to bleed into Rewind, for better or worse. Granted, a recounting of what occurred once the abuse came to light necessarily demands more cut-and-dried clarity, concerned as it is with plea bargains, cross-examinations, and the workings of Jewish-American politics. (One of the abusers was a prominent member of New York’s renowned Temple Emanu-El.) Still, these later scenes chronicling the real-life legal thriller that embroiled Neulinger’s family can’t help but feel somewhat pedestrian when compared to the intimate intensity on display elsewhere.
However, the director also rather cunningly uses his film’s later crime-drama passages to reckon with matters of manhood and identity. While the terrible things done to Neulinger had a profound effect on him, even as a child he seems to have embraced self-determination over fatalistic victimhood, finding uncommon strength in his heritage. The filmmaker’s current surname, it turns out, is that of his mother’s grandfather: On the occasion of his bar mitzvah, Sasha legally abandoned the name he shared with his abusers, and assumed the name of the man who fled World War II-era Europe for American shores. The past might always be a part of us, Rewind suggests, but we have a say in which fragments we elevate and embrace.
Rewind is available to stream for free online from PBS' Independent Lens from May 8 - June 10.