“Paternal Rites”— A Contemporary Jewish American Family

 

“Paternal Rites”

A Contemporary Jewish American Family

Amos Lassen

Jules Rosskam’s documentary is a “first-person essay on film that examines the aftereffects of physical and sexual abuse in a contemporary Jewish American family, with the filmmaker’s queer and transgender identity at its core”. Filmmaker Rosskam and his partner, Alex, retrace a 1974 road trip taken by Rosskam’s parents and combine photographs, audio recordings, home movies, live action “to evoke the psychoanalytic journey of memory retrieval and trauma recovery”.

This is also a film about the nature of trauma and memory itself: the ways in which trauma works uncannily; the function of speech and narrative in the process of decryption; and the role of film and filmmaking in the practice of healing. In the fall of 2013 filmmaker Jules Rosskam and his partner, Alex, set out to retrace a road trip that Rosskam’s parents, Marilyn and Skip, completed in the fall of 1974 (just prior to his birth and their transition to both suburbia and parenthood. We hear audio diaries that Marilyn and Skip kept during the course of their four-month journey and sees photographs and travelogue footage recorded on Super 8 that is barely perceptible, grainy. Their route included Boston, Mobile, Savannah, Chicago, Portland, Vancouver. 

As we watch, we hear present-day audio interviews between Rosskam and his mother, father, partner, and therapist. The faces of speaking subjects are never seen. Rosskam tries to make sense of conflicting narratives of his childhood, and to find forgiveness for the man who did not protect him. As the director searched for a story about his father, he is confronted with the truth about his brother causing a surprising and shocking conclusion. 

We see images of the American landscape, which tend to haunt the viewer with their banality, and with the layering of still images over live-action footage. There is also the white screen upon which colorful animations are used to “evoke the psychoanalytic process of memory’s retrieval and trauma’s repair.”  

What is really implicit throughout is the filmmaker’s queer and transgender subjectivity, which comes to the surface of the screen when the viewer sees fragments of home movies of his childhood that are amazing in their unremarkable nature and hears audio recordings of contemporary conversations between Rosskam and Alex, who functions as Rosskam’s partner in life as well as in this project. What we really see is how film is able to take us to places we would not ordinarily go.

 

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