Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s heroic and devastating autobiographical documentary opens with questions familiar to many people: Why are home movies always so haunting? What is it that tinges even the happiest footage with a touch of melancholy? What is it about them that makes someone’s own life feel like a ghost story?
In “Rewind,” much of which is comprised of the fuzzy tape that Neulinger’s father compulsively shot on his camcorder throughout the ’90s, all of the worst suspicions that might arise from these videos turn out to be well-founded and worse. But the footage also speaks to a broader disquiet that rings true for those of us who haven’t been forced to survive any version of Neulinger’s awful misfortunes.
“Rewind,” as indelibly as any film ever made, illustrates how the very process of investigating your own past can be a trauma unto itself. And it does so by weighing that pain against the (potentially even greater) trauma of repressing the most awful truths, holding the hurt in, and using your body as a vessel to preserve the kind of darkness that should never be projected onto anyone else.
For Sasha, it seems that the only thing more difficult than making this movie would have been not making this movie. Reflecting on some of the old footage from which he was a lost and violent four-year-old kid, the now-twentysomething filmmaker laments that he “knows exactly how I got to this place, but there are pieces that are missing. It’s a puzzle made from my life, and I feel like I have to put that puzzle back together if I’m ever going to move on.” What follows is a wrenching self-portrait of inherited abuse that joins “The Tale” and “Leaving Neverland” on a growing list of essential and unfathomably brave films about the internalization of sexual trauma. What “Rewind” sometimes lacks in elegance, it makes up for in immediacy.
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Directed by Neulinger with the encouragement of his immediate family, “Rewind” introduces us to a pudgy little kid with a terrible burden that’s burning inside of him like a coal stove in a stone house. Watching five-year-old Neulinger look into the camera with a pair of dead eyes and proclaim himself “the host of ‘Shit Diaries,’” you want to say, “a pudgy little kid who clearly has a terrible burden,” but the first lesson here is that hindsight is 20/20.
The story, as Neulinger’s mom Jacqui remembers it, is that her husband Henry Nevison was several hours late to Sasha’s birth because he was out buying a video camera, and that — beginning when their son was only 11 days old — he obsessively recorded their daily lives. Being interviewed by Sasha in the present, Jacqui says that the camera was “a wall.” What she didn’t realize back then was that Henry needed some kind of barrier for his own protection; that he needed a way to experience the joys of having a child without feeling compelled to reflect on what being a child had meant for him.
Sasha’s abuse takes shape in fragments, as “Rewind” — contrary to its title — doesn’t reel back to the beginning and then move forward from there. Instead, the film jumps around in time, emulating the slow and unsure process by which Sasha’s mom and dad pieced together what was happening to their son.
That process was clearly a nightmare. Sasha complains about there being “swords in his penis,” and asks his mom if she’s going to kill him. It only gets scarier from there. Viewers are immediately suspicious of the adults who show up in the home video footage (there’s just something off about that Uncle Larry), but Henry and Jacqui didn’t clock them as threats at the time. The guilt they obviously feel about that today is compounded on both sides: For one thing, Sasha isn’t their only child. For another, those two children weren’t their abusers’ only victims in the family.
While the editing is sometimes clunky through the middle of the film, and the scenes when returns to the courtroom in order to retrace are shot with a distancing flatness that feels at odds with the filmmaker’s own emotional urgency, the idea to splinter the story allows “Rewind” to follow all the ways in which Sasha’s trauma reached him and then spiraled outwards. One astounding sequence finds Henry showing his now-adult son through exact place where he was abused as a child; it’s heartbreaking to register how this father emerged from his own harrowing domestic situation with the mistaken belief that the only person he would have to protect his children from was himself.
The guilt necessary for that mindset — and the hurt of living with its consequences — percolate just under the surface, even if Sasha doesn’t feel the need to press his dad any deeper. Another, more “objective” filmmaker might have probed for more explicit moments of grief and catharsis (as “Capturing the Friedmans” did to some extent) but “Rewind” is all the more powerful for how palpably it conveys the cost of living with this legacy.
As much as Sasha might be hoping to solve this puzzle, he knows that assembling the pieces won’t necessarily allow him to feel whole. “It’s not that I didn’t get love,” he says to his parents. “It’s that I didn’t feel lovable.” The hope is that this process will at least be able to change that much. As a kid, he and his sister wondered what they did to deserve this. Perhaps there’s a silver lining to learning that we don’t live in a moral universe.
And “Rewind” does contain its moments of lightness. One beautiful passage focuses on Sasha’s love for the good men in his family, whom he prizes for their warmth and forgives for their obliviousness. Over time, as Judaism emerges as a theme and Sasha doubles back to his own bar mitzvah, the film’s last and most unexpected question comes to the fore: What does it mean to be a man? In a family where that role has been diluted by generations of darkness, Sasha arrives at a definition he can pass down with pride.
For him, it means protecting the ones you love. It means sharing an unspeakably painful story so that others might feel more comfortable doing the same. To borrow a phrase that young Sasha wrote on the videotapes he made after his abuse began, it means never erasing certain things, or recording over them ever ever ever.
“Rewind” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.