To say that child sex abuse in a documentary could in any way be connected to that Hitchcock/thriller word — suspense — is, on the face of it, an offensive thought. We’re talking despicable crimes that reverberate for years and even for generations; they don’t exist for our “entertainment.” Yet “Capturing the Friedmans,” the remarkable movie Andrew Jarecki made in 2003 — it is, along with Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us from Evil” (2006), the most staggering documentary of our time about child sex abuse — unveiled a situation of unfathomable suspense, of sinister layered mystery. It turned the audience into detectives and left us pondering questions, long after the film was over, of what, exactly, went on in it. Jarecki used the dramatic lure of the things we didn’t know, and were craning our necks around corners to see, as a metaphor for how child sex abuse can haunt its victims, tearing away at memory and identity. The suspense of “Capturing the Friedmans” was that it turned watching a documentary into the mirror of a victim’s journey.
“Rewind,” Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s darkly compelling documentary about the abuse that deformed his own family, is a movie made in the voyeuristic spirit of “Capturing the Friedmans.” At the beginning, we see home-video footage, shot in the late ’90s, of Neulinger as a boy (he was born in 1989), and he’s an eager bright freckled kid, with staring eyes and a lopsided smirk, who has a disarming intensity about him. We hear a story from his mother, Jacqui, about how, in the early grades, he was a gifted child who tested off the charts and then, out of the blue, withdrew from schoolwork. Neulinger, in “Rewind,” is the detective-interviewer excavating his own past, and with his shaved head, shadow of a beard, and polite becalmed millennial manner, he’s an earnest and at times nearly ghostly presence. He’s chasing the ghosts that won’t let go of him.
As we sink into the early scenes, a question hovers over every moment, and it’s the “Capturing the Friedmans” question: What in God’s name happened? The film sets up a mystery to be solved, and the fact that it doesn’t state the answer outright is part of the dramatic texture. We can’t help but imagine the worst. Yet what would the worst be?
The film returns to a time when Sasha was a boy and it first came to light that he may have been abused. The culprit the police initially suspected was his own father. We’ve already been given a thumbnail portrait of his dad, Henry, a camcorder enthusiast who was obsessed with shooting home videos, to the consternation of everyone around him. (“This is the world’s most documented family!” he announces with deluded pride.) Is there something suspicious there?
Yet Sasha, as an adult, has a relatively benign and easygoing relationship with Henry. So we instinctively cross the father off our list of suspects. “Rewind,” in contrast to “Capturing the Friedmans,” takes only about half an hour to begin tipping its hand about what went on within the Neulinger family; the nature of the abuse isn’t as shrouded in unfathomable weirdness. Yet the suspenseful structure remains. Enough so that I’ll issue a spoiler alert before revealing that the abusers in Sasha’s life turn out to be several members of his father’s family, notably Henry’s two older brothers, Larry and Howard.
“Rewind” isn’t toying with us in a manipulative way; it lets the cat out of the bag and goes from there. Yet even once we learn who the abusers were, the deeper mystery remains. What happened? morphs into where and when? and how could it have happened? and — most devastatingly — what did it feel like? These questions take up residence in our minds, and Sasha Joseph Neulinger answers all of them.
It happened right here, next to the bathtub. It happened because when Howard took Sasha into the bedroom and closed the door, his mother, though a little unnerved, didn’t rely on her own better judgment. And it felt, in the young Sasha’s own words, like he had “swords in my penis.” “Rewind” is an investigative look at how the hideousness of child sexual abuse lives in the details, in the intimate revelation of memories that take on a horrific exactitude. Watching the movie is like staring at a blurred image of the past that gradually, over 86 minutes, comes into terrifying focus.
The home videos of Sasha’s childhood — and that of his younger sister, Bekah, who was also a victim — include an element that’s disquietingly dramatic: footage of the perpetrators, relaxing and being themselves in family situations, and if that sounds supremely creepy, it is (especially when one of them nuzzles Sasha as a baby). Here’s Uncle Larry, the compulsive cutup, who thinks he’s a lot funnier than he is (the aggressiveness of his comedy expresses his self-obsession). And here’s Howard Nevison, the family celebrity, a former operatic baritone with a regal head of hair — we see clips of him from the ’80s singing solo in front of an orchestra — who, after his classical-music career ended, became the cantor at the Temple Emanu-El on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Howard, too, likes to perform for the camera, and as we stare at him, trying to divine his dark side, the scary thing is that we see it and we don’t.
If “Rewind” has a theme, it’s the cyclical nature of sexual abuse. Most of the villains, in this case, were also victims. Neulinger interviews the psychiatrist he saw as a child, Dr. Herbert Lustig, and in addition to showing us Sasha’s crayon scrawls of monstrous behavior, Lustig describes child sexual abuse as a “vile version of the gift that keeps on giving” — by which he means how often abusers were themselves abused, a syndrome that can keep replicating itself. Sasha’s father, we learn, was also a victim, and while he never became an abuser, there’s still a way that the toxic energy of what he suffered turned destructive in him: He allowed his two older brothers, who had done unspeakable things, into his home, helping to visit that same abuse upon his children.
“Rewind” culminates in the story of how Sasha and his family attempted to bring their abusers to justice. One of them wound up confessing, but Howard, hiding behind his power as a leader of New York’s Jewish community, attempted to deflect the charges. This is often a theme of sexual-abuse documentaries, from “Deliver Us from Evil” to “Leaving Neverland” — how abusers evade the law. And the way it plays out here is at once infuriating and daunting. Yet “Rewind,” in the end, is Sasha’s story; it’s about how he achieves the deliverance he seeks. A documentary like this one has the effect of a moral thriller. The movie stands as a warning — of what can hide in the shadows of any family. But to experience Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s story is to diminish, just a little bit, the power of those forces.