Paternal Rites is a first-person essay film that examines the secret underbelly of a contemporary Jewish American family as they grapple with the after effects of physical and sexual abuse on their present-day lives. It is also a groundbreaking film about the nature of trauma and memory itself: the ways in which trauma encrypts in uncanny ways; the function of speech and narrative in the process of decryption; and the role of film and filmmaking in the practice of healing.
Interview with Director/Producer/Editor Jules Rosskam
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
I had no intention of making a film about trauma. When I first started making Paternal Rites, four years ago, my plan was to recreate a cross-country road trip my parents took in 1974 and to use the trip as a way of traveling not only across the continent but also across time; I wanted to know my parents in some new and different way. And yet, I have made a film that excavates one of the darker parts of my life. I have burrowed in there so that I could turn it inside out, understand it, and then put it back away. And the way I understand things is to make work about them. So, this film, much like all of my films, stands as evidence of my pursuit of knowledge, and of connection.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
There are so many reasons! First of all, it won't be like any other film you've seen; I promise. If you're excited about cutting edge documentaries, then this film will definitely interest you. Secondly, people continuously tell me how deeply impacted they were by the film, even though they didn't share my specific experiences. I think when we attend a film festival we want to see a film that's visually arresting, emotionally meaningful, and possible even transformative. Paternal Rites is that film.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Paternal Rites is, in many ways, about my relationship with the men in my family. As a transgender man, I am positioned both inside and outside of masculinity, which puts me in a unique position to dissect it, reflect on it, and think critically about how to ethically embody masculinity. This position both inside and outside may also be what allowed me to disrupt the historical transmission of trauma and addiction.
While Paternal Rites is about my specific family, it is also about all families; how each person within a family system keeps that system in place. It also shows the ways in which most of us are traumatized — to varying degrees — by the big and little failures of our parents to protect us, to know us, to see us for who we really are. What I hope will also be apparent is the fact that the Family is the original “institution” through which we are subjected to gendered dynamics of power and coercion. As our culture reckons with the rampant abuse of women in the workplace, we need to remember that the family structure is also at the center of this issue. This is the foundation of a patriarchal society.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
The film changed pretty dramatically over the course of its development and production. I thought I was setting out to make a film about my father, and while that remains a critically part of the film, it expands into being about so much more. The visual language of the film also grew out of a single image into something that looks more like a collage than any one style. The film includes video, Super8 and 16mm film, text, and animation.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Wonderful feedback. Because it takes an experimental form, I was worried that certain audiences would be put off by it, but people have said over and over again how accessible it is. Many people have told me that they've never seen anything like it, which of course I take as a huge compliment. I am always trying to push the form of documentary to its limits. At the most recent screening of Paternal Rites, a film studies professor said that he'd never seen a documentary that dealt with such difficult interpersonal issues that were as balanced and generous towards each character as Paternal Rites.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
As I mentioned a moment ago, the only real surprise has been how accessible people say it is.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
For more people to see it!
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
I hope more film festival directors will be willing to program this challenging, but incredibly rewarding film. We are also shopping the film around to distributors, so if you're interested in helping us get the film out, don't hesitate to reach out!
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Paternal Rites demonstrates how we all might return to the source of our pain in order to move through trauma and into connection; reflecting a therapeutic process that emphasizes dialog and critical self-awareness as a mode of healing. I think we could all use a little more of this right about now.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Who has hurt you and how might you be able to hold them accountable in such a way that is not about retribution, but rather, transformation?
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I'm about to wrap up a short documentary exploring transgender people's relationship to dance called, Dance, Dance Evolution. Check out more info soon here. The film's producer Marc Smolowitz is in production on a new documentary exploring what it means to be gifted in America called, The G-Word, which you can read more about here.
Interview: March 2019
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series, music video, women's films, LGBTQIA+, POC, First Nations, scifi, supernatural, horror, world cinema. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
Paternal Rites is a first-person essay film that examines the secret underbelly of a contemporary Jewish American family as they grapple with the aftereffects of physical and sexual abuse on their present-day lives. It is also a groundbreaking film about the nature of trauma and memory itself: the ways in which trauma encrypts in uncanny ways; the function of speech and narrative in the process of decryption; and the role of film and filmmaking in the practice of healing.
Director: Jules Rosskam
Producer: Marc Smolowitz
Writer: Jules Rosskam
About the writer, director and producer:
JULES ROSSKAM is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, artist, and educator. Through the use of autoethnography and hybrid forms, Rosskam's films investigate the construction of social self-identities and the radical potential of liminal spaces. He is also the director of Something to Cry About (2018), Thick Relations (2012), Against a Trans Narrative (2009), and Transparent (2005).
Looking for: distributors, journalists, film festival directors
Facebook: Paternal Rites
Hashtags used: #paternalritesfilm #ActAccountably
Funders: Funded, in part, by the LEF Foundation
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? Queens World Film Festival/Queens, NY - March 29, 6pm; Queer Urgencies Conference/Philadelphia, PA - April 6, 7pm; Rice Cinema/Houston, TX - March 8, 6:30pm