'Rewind': Film Review

Courtesy of John Solem
A painful examination of lost innocence and injustice.
5/8/2020

Sasha Joseph Neulinger digs into the story of his own childhood sexual abuse in his debut doc.

A memoir of molestation whose convoluted structure mirrors the shocking web of abuse its protagonists suffered, Sasha Joseph Neulinger's Rewind allows viewers to watch as a bright, loving child is utterly transformed by a family member's sexual assault. The use of old home movies to show how Neulinger's life was transformed, however dramatic, is just the start here, as this was a family with plenty of pain to uncover — and one whose suffering would be exacerbated by a powerful religious community that, for once in stories like this, isn't the Catholic Church. Though difficult to watch, it's a film that helps outsiders confront the horrifying ways such events can cause damage for decades after the fact.

As a filmmaker, Neulinger owes much here to his father Henry — who was late to his own son's birth because he was buying the video camera he'd use to shoot so much of this footage. Henry's home movies show a kindergarten-age Sasha as playful and family-oriented; a year later, the boy has put on substantial weight, frowns constantly and erupts in hard-to-process dark emotions.

Explaining this change is present-day footage in which Sasha interviews others, leaning largely on conversations with his mother, Jacqui. Throughout their interactions, the son is mostly silent as his mother remembers what he did and said during those years, and how he gradually made it known that someone had touched him sexually. The way he did that, though, was to hint at another violation happening under the same roof — that of his beloved sister Rebekah.

Viewers who think they understand things at this point will likely be very wrong, as many of this story's characters were similarly abused. Before the filmmaker spells things out, he uses videos of backyard cookouts and innocent gatherings to introduce members of a gregarious extended family, in which Henry, when not holding the camera, was usually mugging for it alongside one of his brothers. The comedy was a coping mechanism, as Henry now explains: His own childhood was an emotional minefield that can barely be sketched out here. The more we learn, the more sinister those happy home movies look.

As Neulinger follows chains of trauma and abuse through his family tree, it's easy to digest how innocent people paid the price. What's more difficult is following exactly how things played out in the legal system. Seeking justice in the courts required an endless series of painful interviews and years of legal procedure.

The nature of the saga changes when we understand that this child was up against a man, Howard Nevison, whose prominent job as cantor for Manhattan's Congregation Emanu-El came with powerful friends — like Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who, according to the film, eased Nevison through the system when he was arrested. The congregation rallied to support Nevison, holding a fundraiser for his defense. (Though Neulinger works hard to be even-handed here, including footage that shows Uncle Howie's loving side, he doesn't invite anyone from Emanu-El to share their side of the story.)

Parallel to interviews with city officials who reconstruct an infuriating case of justice denied, the film offers another conversation. Dr. Herbert Lustig, the psychiatrist who worked with Sasha as he was revealing what happened to him, explains that the boy was victorious no matter what courts decided should happen to Nevison: Having told the truth in public, in the face of his abuser, Lustig believes he "won" in terms of his own emotional health. Clearly, there was more healing to be done; one hopes that making Rewind has helped Sasha and his family close this book.

Production companies: Step 1 Films, Grizzly Creek Films
Distributor: Grizzly Creek Films (Available Friday on digital and VOD)
Director: Sasha Joseph Neulinger
Producers: Robert Schneeweis, Sasha Joseph Neulinger, Avela Grenier, Shasta Grenier Winston
Executive producers: Cindy Meehl, Thomas Winston
Directors of photography: Jeff Dougherty, Rick Smith
Editor: Avela Grenier
Composer: T. Griffin

86 minutes