There’s a point toward the end of Sasha Neulinger’s debut documentary, Rewind, during which the man who is both director and subject takes the stand in an empty courtroom and rereads a statement he gave years ago. Afterward, as he speaks about his hopes for the future, his excitement is contagious, and for the first time, the happy kid he once was is recognizable in his adult expression.
This moment is a triumph for both Neulinger and the audience because although the documentary is pieced together from miraculously in-depth stores of home videos, footage of its subject at his most carefree is hard to come by. At a young age, Neulinger was subjected to brutal sexual abuse from multiple offenders that shook his family to their foundation. As an adult, Neulinger now pieces together the trauma through interviews with his parents, his sister, a mental health professional, a detective, a lawyer, and more. It turns out, Neulinger himself is the best primary source, as the fallout from his abuse is caught on tape by his film-loving father and captured via crayon drawings he scribbled during therapy sessions.
There have been a handful of taboo-shattering docs that dive deep into the complex psychological impact of child sexual abuse (CSA) in 2019, including At The Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, Leaving Neverland, and the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. Although Rewind lacks the built-in attention that comes with those headline-grabbing cases, it should be counted among the most important stories of its kind. And while its subject matter may hew close to the aforementioned recent docs, its tone and the stitched-together quality feels more akin to gripping, stranger-than-fiction family sagas like Three Identical Brothers and Capturing the Friedmans.
Rewind weaves a web of abuse more complicated than most; by its end, there’s a virtual flow-chart of abusers and abused that includes at least six different parties, all within the same family. Large sections of home movie footage show abusers grinning at the camera, their comedic edge growing more frightening and dissonant as Neulinger’s testimony unfolds. This film is stomach-churning, to be sure, but it’s also an intentional, unflinching, and emotionally resonant dissection of what generational trauma looks like.
Each named survivor responds to trauma differently: with mood swings and suicidal episodes, or via emotional repression and humor, or, in an angle that’s all too common and rarely addressed, by perpetuating the violence onto someone else. Even in the post-#MeToo era, there are still too few documentaries that highlight the experiences of male survivors, and perhaps none that explore the nebulous and sophisticated impact of male victimhood as closely as this one, with the camera lens looking directly into the eyes and soul of a changed young boy. There are deep wells of empathy and bravery here, and the resulting portrait is of a tough core family bound together by uncomfortable truths and unshakable memories.
In that courtroom scene, Neulinger says he realizes that he has his whole life ahead of him, and he’s right. The film’s closing scene lets us know he hopes to change the conversation around abuse and to support survivors however possible. With a documentary as powerful as Rewind, it’s safe to say that he already has.