It’s been a pretty impressive run for what was someone’s very first feature documentary. But then again, Rewind is no ordinary first film.
After Sasha Joseph Neulinger finished film school at Montana State University, he discovered the raw materials that would propel him to tell the extraordinary story of his life. A very candid autobiographical film, years in the making, Rewind premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival where it received a special jury mention. It was a story he had to tell in order to move on to tell other stories.
Rewind is “a deeply personal, revealing, and unforgettable piece of filmmaking,” wrote Brian Tallerico for RogerEbertdotcom. It’s “an intentional, unflinching, and emotionally resonant dissection of what generational trauma looks like,” adds Valerie Ettenhofer in NonFics. “[Rewind] should be counted among the most important stories of its kind.”
“A wrenching self-portrait that joins The Tale and Leaving Neverland on the list of essential recent films about the internalization of trauma,” wrote David Ehrlich in IndieWire. “Rewind, as indelibly as any film ever made, illustrates how the very process of investigating your own past can be a trauma unto itself.”
The Philadelphia native Neulinger has now settled in a peaceful corner of Montana, where he wrote to us to talk more about this personal journey, about how he’s doing today, on what his sister thought of the film, how he saw his childhood self as a character in his own film, and some cheering updates on people in his story.
Why did you want to make this film, to tell such a personal and painful journey?
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. But unlike my father, my uncles, and my cousins, I am also the beneficiary of the support of a loving mother, a fearless detective, a determined prosecutor, and an esteemed child psychologist. I wish that what happened to me as a boy was rare and anomalous—it isn’t. But the archive I use to tell my story is unique. My father, a documentary filmmaker, captured every chapter of my childhood. With two hundred hours of home video of me and my abusers, and the headlines, newsreels, and exposés that tracked ten years of a high profile case, I am able to tell a story of how a vile inheritance was passed through generations, about how that cycle was finally broken, and about what must change for the story to be rewritten.
You succeeded in making an approachable film about a very tough subject. How did you work to make this a film that audiences would stay with — in the editing, tone, time jumps, etc.?
Through the editing process, we had deep conversations about how to handle this material. We knew that we never wanted to beat around the bush or sugarcoat the topic. We wanted to be pointed, but we also had to be mindful of what the audience could bear. As the film came together we realized we needed to build in “breaks” for the viewer so that we could be as pointed as we wanted to be, while also allowing time for viewer recovery. Those breaths could be cute or endearing moments from my childhood. They could be real moments or connections from the present that hinted at a positive outcome. Either way, these recovery periods were designed to remind the viewer why they are watching this, and that despite the challenges, the film is working its way to a satisfying resolution.
Who do you hope Rewind impacts the most?
My decision to create this film was born, largely, out of a personal commitment to speak out for children who have survived abuse. I hope that this film can facilitate change by encouraging audiences to engage in more open conversations about abuse and to support the growing movement that protects children.
Along those lines, this is obviously such a powerful film to open up/inspire conversations around. And tricky. Do you have suggestions/ guidance for people watching Rewind together about how it can lead to discussions? This seems like it can also be a film more broadly about communication (or lack thereof) among families.
I can’t speak to other families and their experiences but I can speak about my own. My family and I chose to confront our trauma head-on. In doing so, we have become more self-aware, happier and healthier both as individuals and as a family. There aren’t any unspoken wounds that prevent us from enjoying each other’s company. As a result, we’ve been able to create beautiful new memories together that aren’t defined or shaped by the traumas of our past.
Deep and meaningful conversation requires honesty, patience, and humility. Listening is just as important as speaking. Truly listening. Not thinking about what you are going to say next while the other person is talking, but truly LISTENING. It’s there that I believe empathy and forgiveness can be found.
I have a self-made slogan that I live by: “I can’t change the past, and I can’t control what happens outside of me. I can only choose how I show up in the present moment of my life.”
What was especially tricky or challenging for you about trying to make this film?
I was 23 years old when I began the journey that became Rewind. I struggled to navigate the realities of my inexperience and the weight that came with digging up my past. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a supportive, talented, and experienced team. Rewind would not have been possible without them.
The hardest part of making this film was facing my own fear of the vulnerability that would come with telling my story. I was also asking the people I care about most to do the same. It was a big ask. But gradually, after many hard conversations and lots of honesty, my family joined me in the project in hopes that it could free us from the burden of secrets, that we could release our shame and give ourselves a chance to truly move forward.
Do you see your childhood self as a distinct character in this story? Were you able to separate yourself from him?
Making Rewind was all about finding my childhood self and learning to love him. For so many years, I thought that what happened to me made me dirty and unloveable. In rewatching 200 hours of home video I got to watch myself grow up, objectively, and I can safely say that I learned to love him. In directing this film, I needed to be able to see myself (both past and present) as a character, but I also didn’t want to rob myself of the positives of a subjective experience.
So I was very deliberate. I would watch everything twice and sometimes even more. The first watch was just to feel. For me. I tried to be much more intentionally objective for the second or third watch.
What was your sister’s reaction seeing the film, since this is her story too?
When I first told my sister that I wanted to make this film, she was angry. She asked why I wanted to unearth all of this after we had just got through it all? I argued that we hadn’t actually “gotten through it.” We survived it, but in not being able to talk about it, in having fear of talking about it, we were still victims to it. Surviving wasn’t enough for me, and I didn’t want it to be enough for my family. I wanted us to truly be able to move forward with our lives.
My sister really thought about it, and was the last one to agree to be a part of this story after my dad and my mom. It took a lot of courage and trust from her, and we wouldn’t have this film without her. That being said, I was very nervous to show her the final cut…but sent the link.
When I got the call from her a couple of hours later, my heart was drumming in my chest. Her first words: “I love you… I love you so much Sash.” She loved the film, and felt that it was an honest and accurate representation of our experience. My mom and dad felt that way too for that matter. And for that I am extremely grateful.
How are you coping during the COVID quarantine era? Are you able to still produce work?
2019 was the most incredible and insane year of my life. Rewind premiered at Tribeca and went on a long international film festival tour. I gave 37 speeches for Child Advocacy Centers around the country. I got married, closed on a property, and began construction on a house. It was action-packed, rewarding and satisfying, but also exhausting. I was about to start another 34-plane speaking tour when COVID-19 hit. All of my spring speeches got postponed, and while disappointed, I can honestly say that I needed this break more than anything.
Other than working to reschedule my tour and being available for PR around the film, I have spent a lot of my time doing the things that bring me joy in life. I’ve been cooking a lot, trying new recipes. I have been putting a lot of time into training our new puppy, Rocky. And I have spent a lot of time cleaning up the creek on our property. Clearing deadfall and brush, cutting and stacking firewood and digging new fire pits. Most importantly, this is the first time during my marriage that I have had more than two weeks at a time with Lauren. We have the whole Spring and Summer together, and that is the greatest gift.
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Lauren and I want to thank Thompson River Animal Care Shelter for helping us find our boy @rockydog406 ! We adopted him on Friday, and he already feels like he’s been a part of our family forever. He’s a sweetheart and VERY trainable. He’s figured out “sit” and “stay” and how to indicate to us that he needs to go outside (he’s figured out that’s where he’s supposed to go to the bathroom) He’s so sweet, intelligent, and joyful and he’s already changed our lives forever. We couldn’t be happier with our 18 week old Heeler/ Pit Bull Terrier pup (with a sprinkle of Basset Hound).
We live in a very rural area, so I understand that our experience with COVID-19 has been different than what many other Americans are experiencing in more populated areas. In this time of uncertainty we are being challenged to dig deep and harness the power of our own internal light. Our resiliency is being tested, and now more than ever in the wake of COVID-19, it is important to remember just how much human beings are capable of overcoming. I’m honored to have the opportunity to share Rewind at this pivotal time.
Was there anything you wish you could’ve included in the final film but didn’t make the cut?
As his thesis in film school, my Dad made a strange and amazing documentary about his brother Larry. The film was an uncanny portrait of Larry’s pain and frustration. I wish that we’d been able to include portions of it, but we were never able to find the right placement in our complicated story.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
I love the guinea pig funeral as it gives the audience a chance to relax into the story and an invitation to laugh.
What’s a question that kept coming up from audiences who saw the film?
At festival screenings audience members often ask if we have heard anything from Temple Emanu-El following the making of the film. I personally reached out to Temple Emanu-El during production, but as of the release of Rewind on Independent Lens, there has been no response or outreach from any representative at the New York City-based temple.
As a first-time filmmaker, were there any other films, documentary or narrative, or other works (books, art) that influenced you or were in the back of mind as you put Rewind together?
I just have to give credit to the Montana State University’s School of Film and Photography. I started Rewind the year I graduated from college, and while I can’t pin one particular film that influenced me, the program had us watching at least 5 films a week. Every era, every genre, North American, South American French, Italian, German. Jim Joyce was the professor that challenged me and inspired me the most.
On that topic, can you name three of your favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
Samsara, Dear Zachary, and Tickled.
Can you tell us what project(s) you’re working on next?
Right now I am working on a book about my seven-year journey to bring my story to the screen, and the struggle, lessons, catharsis and growth that came from facing my demons head-on.
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?
I founded my company Voice for the Kids in 2016 and travel nationally as a public speaker, working with Child Advocacy Centers and individuals engaged in the fight to end child abuse. On a more personal note, Lauren and I got married in June 2019.
Bekah just graduated from Grad School with her Masters in Social Work, and I am so proud of her. I got to spend some quality time with her in February at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and it was fantastic. She’s a strong, beautiful, hilarious, and just all-around awesome human being.
My mom and her boyfriend Vaughn recently adopted a rescue pup as well. His name is Jasper and he’s adorable. My mom is an extremely talented chef and even more talented baker. When I moved out of the house to go to college, I soon realized just how big of a void was left in my life without her food. So I started cooking back in 2008 and now I love to cook just as much as my mom does. We share recipes, food photos, and sometimes we’ll even cook the same thing at the same time via FaceTime or Skype. We call it “Mother/ Son Kitchen Time.”
My dad visited Lauren and I over the winter while we were building our house, and for two weeks, he and I did all of the tile work together. We tiled both bathrooms and the master shower and it was an absolute blast. My dad is extremely handy, and it was great to learn from him and create new memories in my new home. Ironically, the hexagon floor tiles we set in the master shower were called “REWIND” tile. The last tile we placed was the sample, which had REWIND written in sharpie on the bottom.
During the years working on my case, Risa Vetri Ferman was the assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She went on to become the first woman District Attorney elected in Montgomery County in 2007 and is now a judge for the Common Pleas Court of Montgomery County.
George retired from the Lower Merion Police Department, and has been enjoying time at the beach or “down the shore” as they say in Philly. About once a month we have a big phone call to catch up, and it usually leaves me with sore abs from a full hour of nearly continuous laughter.
Dr. Lustig and I try to connect on Skype once every couple of months. Not in an official capacity, but as old friends. He’s still practicing, but when he’s away from the office, he’s either enjoying time with Mrs. Lustig, or at choir rehearsal.