July 16, 2019
tribeca film festival

A First-Time Filmmaker on Why You Should Never Take Money in Exchange for Control

In 'Rewind,' Sasha Joseph Neulinger's devastating personal documentary, the filmmaker reckons with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

“This is the most documented family in the world,” proclaims Henry Nevison, director Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s father, from behind the camera in a home video featured in Neulinger's documentary, Rewind. Throughout Neulinger's childhood, his father relentlessly trained the camcorder on his family. The resulting 200 hours of home video would spend decades in storage. But six years ago, Neulinger decided it was time to face the demons he knew resided in that footage. He began re-watching his childhood, and there they were, in plain sight, among the quotidian suburban nostalgia.

In the harrowing Rewind, Neulinger reckons with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. The film is a deeply courageous undertaking, where the investigator is the victim, subject, and prosecutor, and the perpetrators are his family. Throughout the documentary, Neulinger excavates haunting evidence of his abuse from the home videos. He confronts his family with long-held questions. He interrogates the extent of the trauma he has internalized in his body for so many years. And, perhaps most incredibly, he confronts the legacy of multi-generational abuse. While Neulinger's father used the camera as a shield from reality, Neulinger wields it as a weapon of self-discovery.

No Film School sat down with Sasha Joseph Neulinger at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss how he navigating being both subject and filmmaker, why he wouldn't take money from investors if it meant conceding control of the narrative, and more.

"I would rather a film take twice as long to make but be my own than happen overnight but not belong to me."

No Film School: This is your first film, and you're premiering it at Tribeca. That must feel really great! How has it been so far?

Sasha Joseph Neulinger: Amazing. Now that we're finally at Tribeca—now that we've shared the film with the world—it's a real relief. It's not my film anymore. It belongs to the world. And that's cool.

I feel that I got a lot of catharsis out of the experience of making this film. It feels very natural now to say that the journalistic, investigative experience was very subjective. It was helpful, it was eye-opening, it was healing. It just feels natural now to leave that experience, which exists in the film, for others to take what they will from it.

NFS: That transference happens regardless of what kind of film you make, but since this is such an intensely personal story, I can imagine it's even more intense. How did it come about that you were ready to give your story to the world?

Neulinger: I had a pretty unique opportunity to re-watch my childhood by watching over 200 hours of home video. It was a gift to answer questions that had been really bothering me for a long time. This also allowed me to re-contextualize my childhood, and what happened, in a way that I could then have adult conversations with the people who were charged with caring for me.

So here's the background: I was a senior in college, and I was working for Grizzly Creek Films. We were working on a show for National Geographic. I came into [the office] and I told my whole story from top to bottom to the whole team. And that took a while. I think we were probably in the office for six hours. 

I was at a personal crossroads in my life because there was awareness within me that, yes, I survived this awful ordeal, but things are looking up in my life as I set off into my adulthood. But there was also this inner voice deep down inside of me—and I call it my victim voice—that would say to me, against my will, "You're dirty. You're disgusting. You're unlovable." I wondered why I was not able to fully move forward. I knew the reason had to do with my childhood and the unanswered questions. I knew I had to look at it. And so I realized that if I didn't do it right then and there, I would have to live with those unanswered questions forever.

So I called my dad, and I was like, "Hey, do you still have all those home videos?" He's like, "Yeah, I've got three huge boxes in storage." I asked him to send them to me. 

"No matter how beautiful the moment, if it is not pushing the narrative forward, it has to go."

NFS: You referred to the journalistic, investigative elements of your film. What was it like trying to be objective, but also in your experience, and navigating that balance?

Neulinger: Well, after watching the first six tapes, I knew that I needed to start documenting my experience watching them. A lot of these tapes were unlabeled. There was so much excitement and trepidation all in that moment of placing this tape into a dusty old deck—we had pneumatic VHS, Hi-8, VHS-C, all kinds of crazy formats. New questions [arose] from the footage, and that's what led to going back home—to ground zero—to interview my mom, my dad, the psychiatrist, detective, and prosecutor.

I didn't know how it was going to all unfold. But I think that's all documentaries, right? You can know what you're trying to set out to do. But at the end of the day, there's only so much we can control. I feel like, if anything, my first documentary taught me that it's great to have your skeleton and know what you want to do, but you have to be open to what unfolds in front of you. You have to allow the honesty to speak.

'Rewind'
NFS: It seems like there were two parts to the production that were big unknowns. There were first the discoveries that you made when you initially watched the footage, and what might have surprised you. And then there was would happen when you went back and confronted everyone about what you learned from the tapes.

Neulinger: From watching the tapes, I had questions. Questions for my parents about what they saw. I was seeing certain things [in the tapes] that maybe they hadn't even seen. I had questions for my psychiatrist. In the tapes, I watched myself go from this very happy innocent child to a very angry, chaotic child. I had questions for the legal team. It took nine years to prosecute [my abusers]. How come? I wanted to understand that. And with each conversation, the picture became clearer. Ultimately, everybody did the best that they could. What I came to see is, especially with multi-generational child sexual abuse, no one wants to believe that that can happen in their own house. Parents don't want to believe that it can happen in their own house at the hands of people that they love and trust. And yet, 90% of multi-generational abuse is just that.

"Making this film kicked my ass. There's no sugar-coating that."

NFS: Were you the one who actually filmed all of the interviews?

Neulinger: I'm the subject and the director, so I was fortunate to have an incredible team that I could trust.

I'd create a list of interview questions and Thomas Winston, one of our executive producers, would look over them. He'd be like, "Well, do you mind if we get this angle as well?" We'd bounce off each other. But then for the sit-down interviews, I would sit in a different room with headphones and a live feed and listen to everything. He would ask the questions.

Here's the thing: if I asked all the questions, maybe we're not getting these detailed answers, because any one of our subjects could assume that I know [the details] already. So that was something that we knew we had to do right from the beginning. So I would sit there in the other room with the headphones, and then Tom would take breaks and we'd talk about it and say, "Let's dig into this more." Or, "She's not talking about this piece, let's try to go there." [This process] enabled us to get richer interviews and also allow for interview subjects to be able to really flesh out the details for themselves.

The sit-downs were really challenging for me. It was a learning process. There'd be moments where we would be having these great conversations, and maybe out of the corner of my eye I noticed that camera B is not getting the angle that I want, and I would break. But over the course of filming, I finally had to just let go and recognize there's nothing that's normal about this film. I had to trust that I could release control over every little shot. I could communicate what I'm looking for and the style, but then ultimately what was most important is that when the camera started rolling, I needed to just be present with my family and in the moment. It's hard to turn off a part of your mind that is obviously a big part of the storytelling. So balancing filmmaker Sasha and Sasha the human being who's asking his family to open up—that's something that I had to navigate in real time.

"I gave myself permission and time to process as an emotional human being. And then once I did that, I could sit down and really objectively look at it as a filmmaker."

NFS: Can you remember a situation in production or editing when you had to wrestle with filmmaker Sasha and human Sasha?

Neulinger: Avela Grenier, our editor, is just simply amazing. She edited for two years. We talked a lot before she started and we came to the decision together that she was going to have her own space to put together a rough cut. That was to give me enough distance so that I could kind of reset my palate and see things more objectively. This was also so that when we did jump in to fine-tuning the edit, I'd have enough emotional energy to do that. The hardest thing I think I had to do was step away for the creation of that first rough cut. But it was such an important decision that we made as a team.

When I came back, I felt like that was the first time that I could really focus in as a filmmaker without hardcore subjective emotional pulls. I gave myself permission and time to process the film as an emotional human being. And then once I did that, I could sit down and really objectively look at it as a filmmaker.

Neulinger and editor Avela Grenier.Credit: Kickstarter

NFS: In the beginning of our interview, you said that you came into Grizzly Creek and sat down for six hours to tell your story. How did you make your story into a compelling narrative film? Were those two objectives aligned?

Neulinger: Because I am a survivor and because it was such a large part of my life, I can talk about child abuse for a long time. Maybe for someone who doesn't know anything about abuse, they're done after 15 minutes. There are different emotional thresholds. What's digestible for an audience in one sitting? Very early on, we talked about how we don't want to beat around the bush with this topic. And at the same time, we have to toe that line of being authentic and real and also not pushing the audience away.

As we were coming down from a six-hour assembly edit to our 86-minute film, we're always asking the question: Does this intense moment answer the question from the previous scene? Is it asking us a question that takes us into the next one? And if not, it has to go—no matter how beautiful the moment, if it is not pushing the narrative forward, it has to go. So there were amazing moments that had to go. And it was sad. But our point wasn't to just show a bunch of random cathartic moments; it was to make a film.

Another thing that we really thought about was [letting the film breathe], even if just for a minute. What are ways in which we can stay true to the narrative and still provide breaks either in cute, funny moments, or hints about a future that is intact? We wanted something that says to the audience, "Hey, stick with us! This isn't just to beat you up. I promise we're going somewhere with this."

"How people show up in front of the camera, how people work together behind the camera... if we try to control all those elements, we're not actually being present for the process of making the film."

I think right now with the #MeToo movement and with this growing societal awareness of abuse, it's more important than ever that we're making sure that we toe that line—that we're not beating around the bush, but we're thinking about presentation. Films like these should be used to create momentum instead of exhausting people. With this film, for some people maybe we'll have achieved that, and for some people maybe we will have not. Every human being has their own subjective experience, which is what makes films so fun, you know? But it's so important for survivors to have a platform to be able to tell their stories.

NFS: You also give a lot of screen time to your abusers in the film. 

Neulinger: Both abusers and survivors are both trying to achieve the same thing, which is to ascend from victimhood. The difference is that abusers are repeating the cycle and hurting people to get there, and survivors are looking inward and healing to get there. So, we should be angry [at abusers]. And people who abuse children should be incarcerated. But after we've had the natural human experience of being angry, my belief is we have to evolve past that. Because once we're incarcerating abusers and getting angry at them, it's already too late—abuse has happened. To combat it and stop it, we have to eventually get to a place where we're trying to understand the psychological functioning behind the mind of a human being who chooses to rape or abuse. And to do that there has to be a certain level of empathy.

I think it's important to understand that two of my three abusers were victims of child abuse before they were abusers. It doesn't excuse their actions—there's no excuse for their actions— but it can help us understand. As a child, they were stripped of identity and control in their lives. They grow up feeling powerless. If they get no help, maybe one day they're alone in a room with a child and they think, "Hey, I can be the one in power for the first time in my life." So in understanding that, we can help victims heal from their trauma. That, to me, is the most important thing. Because if children who have been abused get the emotional and psychological support that they need, that's how I think we crush this epidemic.

Also, there's also a big distinction between pedophilia and multi-generational child sexual abuse. Larry Nassar and Michael Jackson are pedophiles. They are sexually attracted to children. Multi-generational child sexual abuse isn't necessarily pedophilia. In my case, in my family, it's about power and control dynamics within a family unit. It's about dominance, not about sex. So it's important that as we continue to have this conversation we're also learning to discern the differences between those two. Because they can be very different.

Anger is a valid and important part of the emotional experience for humans. It's important. It gets our blood flowing. But if we land on anger, I think maybe we lose momentum to continue to have the conversation. People put up walls and stop talking.

The edit bay.Credit: Kickstarter

NFS: Do you have advice for filmmakers who may want to make a personal documentary about something intense or traumatic that happened to them?

Neulinger: I benefited from over a decade of intensive psychotherapy before I went to college. I had a base that I could work from. There were still lingering issues, but I had a track record of having to confront my demons. So in that regard, I wasn't starting from scratch. I'm aware that that may have helped me.

But even with all that therapy that I received before I started making the film, making this film kicked my ass. There's no sugar-coating that: it kicked my ass. And if someone chooses to make a film about something that personal, what I can say from my experience is that it'll teach you about yourself. It may pull up things that you weren't even aware of. In fact, it probably will. And how you respond to that will ultimately affect whether it's a positive or negative experience.

I wouldn't recommend doing this in a vacuum. I had to make the choice to make this film on my own, but then once I made that choice I knew pretty quickly that it would benefit the story if I had a trustworthy team that could provide respectful objectivity. I think that also helped.

My biggest piece of advice, I think, would be not to jump into a film if you haven't started working on whatever this trauma or personal narrative is on your own. It can do more harm than good. If you really want to get at the heart of things that are inside of you, perhaps the best place to start is in therapy. And once the filmmaker and the therapist feel that they've gotten to a point where they have enough self-awareness and safeguards in place, you can start.

"How people show up in front of the camera, how people work together behind the camera... if we try to control all those elements, we're not actually being present for the process of making the film."

I was 23 years old when I decided that I wanted to do this. And I remember meeting with a seasoned doc producer out in Montana where I lived. She said, "You know Sasha, the average doc takes four years to make." And I laughed and was like, "Oh, just watch. We'll get it done in a year and be done." And sure enough, it took six years.

I spent so much time stressing about the next source of funding. Where is it going to come from? How are we going to get from this assembly all the way to our final picture when we still have all this fundraising to do? But things seemed to move more smoothly when I surrendered to the fact that I actually didn't have that much control. The only thing that I think we as filmmakers can control is our intentions about the narrative. How people show up in front of the camera, how people work together behind the camera... if we try to control all those elements, we're not actually being present for the process of making the film. Just because it's my own personal story doesn't mean I should try to control everything and everyone. And ultimately I couldn't do this alone—filmmaking requires a team. 

There were many moments during the process of making this film where potential investors would come in and want certain control of the movie. That was never something I was willing to do. I would rather a film take twice as long to make but be my own than happen overnight but not belong to me. And for indie film and for people who are telling personal stories, that's more important than ever. If people want to come in and invest in your film because they believe in you and your subjective experience that's married with the process of making the film, great. But if they want to come in and control the narrative or even potentially exploit it, my advice is the answer always be no.

NFS: It takes a lot of courage—especially if someone's offering you instant gratification—to turn funding down. So, you're right, you have to have that foresight and have your priorities in line. If you hadn't done that, this would be a different movie.

Neulinger: I believe so. I don't think my family would have agreed to be in this film, and wouldn't have shown up so openly and [been so] vulnerable, if someone else was controlling the narrative—someone who didn't know them deeply and personally. The trust and the access I received from my family was unique. That's one of the great benefits to filmmakers telling personal stories—depending on the circumstances, they can have access to incredible moments that wouldn't be possible with a completely objective film team. So there's beauty and power and connective force in that.

But it also requires patience and consideration. Trust is so sacred. There can be no shortcuts with how this narrative is brought to the screen. You can't rush a personal story. It has to happen organically. That means that if someone wants control in exchange for money, tell them to find another film.     

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1 Comment

Seems to be a disconnect between the title of the article and the subject of the article.

July 17, 2019 at 11:04AM

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