Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 9, 2020


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

“Rewind,” a powerful documentary about the sexual abuse of children, was initially scheduled to open in theaters on March 27th at the IFC Center in New York, and April 3rd in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow. However, like all other film releases nationwide, the movie’s theatrical opening was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Like other films I have been covering since early April, it is now available as VOD as well as to be shown on PBS’s Independent Lens on May 11th (complete screening information at www.rewinddocumentary.com).

The film was directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger, the 30-year-old filmmaker who, along with his sister, was molested repeatedly by two uncles and a cousin. The film is structured as a kind of deeply personal series of recollections by Sasha and his rueful mother and father who failed to intervene.

“Rewind”, as the title implies, conflates his memories with the action taken on a VCR to go backward. It becomes clear from the start of the film that his family was obsessed with home recordings that serve as the narrative thread that ties this horrifying family drama together. At the beginning of “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” One might surmise that when sexual abuse takes place, each tale has its own peculiar twist. In Sasha’s family, there was a big appetite for mugging for the videocamera and competition as to who could be the most “entertaining”.

Sasha’s father Henry, the youngest of three brothers, was mostly content to film his two brothers. Howard, the oldest, is the star. An opera protege as a child, he became the cantor at Temple-Emanuel, the prestigious Reform synagogue on New York’s Upper East Side. Vaingloriously, he seeks the camera’s focus. Larry, the self-styled comical middle brother, is always performing in sort of a manic version of Robin Williams, mugging for the camera with a fake British accent and other “skits”. You meet them early in the film and have an intuitive sense that there is something “off” about them but it takes a while to see how much.

Growing up in this household made Sasha something of an extrovert and camera-hog himself. A plump child after the fashion of Spanky in the Our Gang comedies, he enjoys being in the limelight and being “on”. In footage taken by his father at his bar mitzvah, we see Sasha moonwalking. At a picnic, he is seen doing a Jim Carrey impersonation. As is the case with his uncles, you begin to wonder if there was something eating away at him as well.

We learn that Sasha was a well-adjusted and exceptionally bright student but around the age of seven, he began to exhibit strange, if not psychologically disturbed, behavior. One day, he made a mask out of his underwear. Like most children, he had difficulty finding words for a traumatic experience so, in keeping with the family’s theatrical tendencies, he acted it out. He even cut out little eyeholes in the underwear-mask so he could see, and then ran down the stairs. His mother was shocked to see that he written words like loser and bitch on the mask and that his “performance” ended with him grabbing a knife, putting it to his mouth, and screaming.

This was Sasha’s way of calling attention to the suffering he was enduring. His older cousin Stewart, the son of the madcap uncle Larry, was raping him on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Stewart, Larry and the blessed cantor Howard were all taking turns abusing him and his younger sister Rebekah.

I get notes from publicists all the time asking me to review horror movies. None of them could have been more frightening than what is depicted in “Rewind”, nor is there any monster more predatory than Howard. The end of the film is focused on the teen-aged Sasha gathering up courage to testify at Howard’s trial. At the time, the man was tightly connected to major, mostly Jewish, power-brokers in New York through his exalted Temple Emanuel position. They all did their best to protect him from prosecution, including Robert M. Morgenthau, who put Linda Fairstein in charge of the racist Central Park Five prosecution.

Sasha’s father’s obsession with video photography led to a successful career running a film production studio in Pennsylvania that eventually came to an end. When Sasha and Rebekah became old enough to have the courage to confront their relatives and their parents’ failure to stand up for them, the unfolding crisis made it impossible for them to continue as a family.

Perhaps the best thing that came out of his relationship with his father was being inspired to follow in his footsteps as a filmmaker. In the film notes, he explains why he decided to make “Rewind”:

I was 23 years old and I was just finishing college. I was doing some assistant editing work for a National Geographic show and there was just this one night I was sitting in the office alone. I was sitting in this editing bay by myself and there were two things going through my mind. One was: Wow, after everything I’ve been through, I love where I live, I love my friends, I love my job, I love the work that I’m doing. I’m really loving this life I’m living. But the other conversation that was happening in my mind was negative. There was this self-deprecating voice inside of my mind that had followed me from my childhood, the victim voice that I think so many abuse victims share, which says: I’m not worthy. I’m not lovable. I’m not worthy of this incredible experience. I felt that if people knew about my past, and what had happened to me, they wouldn’t want to associate with me. That what happened to me made me gross. I realized that my life was going in a beautiful direction but that I wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy and embrace it unless I faced whatever it was inside of me that was still pulling me down. So, I called my dad and asked him for the tapes.

While I understand that many of my readers would be drawn to escapist entertainment while being confined at home during the pandemic, I strongly urge you to rent “Rewind”. It is a deeply affecting story of how sexual abuse occurs in all sorts of settings, including a family that will remind many middle-class Jews of their own ostensibly normal family—including my own.

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