There are some subjects in life that are truly tough to talk about, and what filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger hopes to do is break the stigma surrounding discussions for one of those complicated subjects—childhood sex abuse. Neulinger, who grew up in Philadelphia, went through a complete whirlwind of experiences, that—without giving too much away—affected his entire family. Surviving abuse as a child not only motivated Neulinger to explore what happened to him, but also compelled him to share his stories with the world, so that society can better understand one of the “greatest social epidemics of our time.”
Neulinger sat down with Metro to discuss more about what went into crafting this personally raw documentary and how he not only received answers to some intense questions, but also was able to survive, live and then find peace.
What was it that compelled you to decide to tell your story through ‘Rewind’?
I was 23 years old and just wrapping up film school [when I decided.] My last day in court was the day before my 17th birthday. A year later I moved to Montana and those four-five years in Montana were the first years consecutively in my life where child sexual abuse wasn’t the primary focus of my existence. It was really wonderful for me to come out to Montana, but there was still a void in the back of my mind—this victim voice that would say, “Sasha, you’re dirty, you’re disgusting and unlovable.” I had a decision to make. Even though I had geographically moved away from my trauma, there were still unresolved issues. I knew very clearly if I didn’t confront those issues from my childhood, that voice would be with me for the rest of my life, and I didn’t want that. So, I figured that there might be some answers to where this was coming from, and I might find some answers through home video. I just started by calling up my dad and asking him if he had any of our childhood videos around, and to my surprise, he said that he had three huge boxes of over 200 hours of video. He sent me the tapes and after I watched those first six tapes, I found enough in those first six to realize that this was going to require all of my time, and not only did I need to watch all of the tapes, but for each answer that I was receiving from the footage, there were ten new questions that I had now as an adult that I wanted to ask my mom, my dad, the prosecutors, the detectives and the psychiatrists. I recognized that I was about to embark on a very long, very hard but potentially cathartic journey. If it turned out to be cathartic and educational, then this was a journey that really needed to be shared with the world.
When you started to create and craft this film in the editing room, how were you able to utilize home videos and present-day interviews to help tell your story?
We had an embarrassment of riches when it came to content—that’s also a double-edged sword because it’s a lot of content to manage—200 hours of home video and then four weeks of a spiritual and raw present-day shoot. It started in the logging process, when I watched the 200 hours of home video, I took detailed notes. It was important to understand what my vision for the film was, but also know that I was going to be learning a lot from these interviews and I needed to have an open mind to how that would push the narrative in directions that I maybe wasn’t yet aware of. I spent four hours vocalizing my vision for the film with my entire film team, and I want to preface this—it was so important for a film that is this objectively emotional that I have a team of talented, trusted filmmakers that I could rely on for objective voices and opinions. That objective film team was really instrumental in making this film, and it allowed me to have space as a protagonist in the film to feel and focus on the feelings, and then be able to step back and objectively discuss what had happened and how it related to this story that I wanted to tell. I have to give a lot of credit to our editor, Avela Grenier. I knew the story that we wanted to tell, but Avela took it upon herself to watch everything multiple times, take extensive notes and understand the story inside and out so that when we had conversations about the narrative, it was a conversation of two people who knew the story at almost the same level of intimacy—that was critical in being able to make decisions in the edit. We didn’t want to make a four-hour film about child abuse, there are plenty of incredible scenes, but we’re talking about child abuse, so we needed to get in, make our point and get out. That was something we felt was really important. Secondly, we didn’t want to beat around the bush, so to be as blunt as we were in the film, we needed to recognize and also create emotional breadth for the audience. Whether it was a cute, innocent, joyful moment or a scene between me and a family member where there might be a positive and satisfying resolution, it was to remind people why they are with us on this journey. We [also] really wanted it to unfold like an investigative thriller, because we wanted it to hold people’s attention despite the graphic and intense nature of the film. Those creative decisions really dictated what pieces of footage we used and how we utilized them.
Did this filming journey turn out to be cathartic for you?
It was extremely hard—to actually do the work, confront these traumas and heal from them, we had to touch the most painful memories and we had to have really painful and brutally honest conversations. It kicked my ass, it really did—but it was worth it. It was the best decision I could have made for me, personally. My family and I, our relationships are so much richer and kinder and more loving and joyful than they’ve ever been before. There is no longer any unspoken pain or resentment that we hold towards each other. It gives us the opportunity to create new memories that aren’t defined by what we survived together, but are rooted in our love for each other and our hope for enjoying our lives. Making the film was cathartic, it was very much about juxtaposing and reconciling this subjective experience I had as a child and this new experience with slightly more objectivity as an adult. Working in those two spaces emotionally and filmically, I was able to find a more well-rounded context for what happened to me, why it took so long to prosecute, why my parents didn’t figure it out right away—big questions that were answered not just for me, but for them too. For me, not as a filmmaker, but as a person, the greatest gift I got from making this film is that now I’m living my life in peace—I’m at peace with myself, I’m at peace with my past and I’m at peace with my family.
What do you hope this film can provide for audiences?
Whether you’re a survivor of childhood sex abuse or not, universally every human being has experienced some sort of trauma—that’s just part of the human experience. Each human being has their own experience and their own response to trauma, but what I hope in watching this film, people can recognize the value and potential healing opportunity that comes from facing that trauma head-on and taking the time and putting in the emotional energy required to understand your own narrative inside and out. On a more child abuse specific note, the stat right now is that a child is abused every nine minutes in America—that’s unacceptable. It’s hard to talk about, and I hear that a lot, but to me that is an unacceptable excuse because children are the future of our world. They oftentimes can’t advocate for themselves, so it is our responsibility as adults to not only be educated about the cyclical nature of abuse and how it works, not just to be aware, but to be present and be willing to take action. The only way that happens is if we’re not having just a one-off conversation about it, but sharing in that conversation in everyday life and doing everything that we can to protect children. I think that abusers and survivors are trying to achieve the same end result—they’re trying to reclaim power in their lives. The difference is abusers are doing it in a way that’s hurtful and damaging to others and survivors are trying to do it from within. If we can have more conversations about the greatest social epidemic of our time, then maybe we’re creating a society where more children and survivors are getting the help they need so that they can confront and become self-empowered, self-loving human beings who don’t feel that they need to inflict pain on others to reclaim power.
‘Rewind’ will be available on Amazon and iTunes May 8, and will air on PBS on May 11.