How Camcorder Footage Exposed a Famed New York City Cantor’s Shocking Child Sexual Abuse
Sasha Neulinger’s heroic and haunting new documentary “Rewind” explores how he went from a happy-go-lucky young kid to a tormented one who wanted to end his life.
In this present moment of intense national (and global) stress, there’s nothing quite as cathartic as a simultaneously wrenching and heartening cry. In that regard, Rewind delivers in spades. Sasha Neulinger’s documentary is as affecting as they come, both for its portrait of unthinkable horrors perpetrated against the weak and defenseless, and for its optimism that healing—however arduously attained—is possible.
Having premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and set for an on-demand release on May 8, Rewind is Neulinger’s autobiographical tale of tragedy and triumph—and one that can’t be discussed in any detail without spoiling some of its “surprises.”
His saga begins in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1990s, with happily married Henry and Jacqui Nevison, infant Sasha, and a video camera, which would soon come between the adult couple. According to Jacqui, “The camera immediately became a wall between Henry and the family. It was something that became intrusive to me, because it was constant and it felt to me like I lost my husband. My husband disappeared into this lens.”
Given how much Rewind relies, from the get-go, on home movie footage of the clan—which would soon come to include a daughter, Bekah, whom Sasha fiercely loved—Jacqui’s early comment implies a forthcoming focus on the harmful presence of technology in modern American households. That critique, however, never materializes; instead, Neulinger’s film casts a wary eye at camcorders as a means of highlighting the deceptiveness of surface appearances. As Henry later remarks, when he now watches his family videos, all he sees is the stuff that’s hidden in the background. And as the film progresses, the more we similarly notice the carefully concealed agony being endured, and villainy being perpetrated, off-screen—spied in a child’s sorrowful eyes, inappropriately sexualized dance, and frantic outburst, or in a grown man’s hair-ruffling gesture or toothy grin.
“It was like a fairy tale,” is how Jacqui describes the foursome’s initial years together. But as she now knows—and as Rewind reveals—that also means there were nefarious villains lurking in disguise among them. Henry grew up with a mother who was gregarious in public and emotionally cold and remote in private, a father who accepted his wife’s vitriol on a daily basis, and two older brothers. The first, Howard, was the famed cantor of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, and the favored son in their mother’s eyes. Larry, on the other hand, comes across in old clips as a performance-happy clown, affecting funny accents and playing to the camera. Both Howard and Larry were fixtures at Henry and Jacqui’s home—as was Larry’s second son, Stewart, who came to live there after being discharged from the Air Force.
While introducing these characters, Rewind spends time with Neulinger and his now-divorced parents, discussing his youthful transformation from a bright, intellectual kid to a troubled adolescent who lashed out unpredictably and often spoke about killing himself. Therapy followed, and educed the source of Neulinger’s torment: he was a victim of monstrous abuse at the hands of Stewart, Larry and Howard (the last of whom was the most violent), who were doing likewise to Bekah. That revelation, unsurprisingly, rocked the family, and it lands with seismic force here as well. Through a subtle editorial structure, Neulinger delivers this bombshell in bits and pieces in a manner akin to its original emergence with his doctor. Crafted with striking delicacy, the film’s form is of a piece with its content.
Far more than a mere recitation of personal anguish and abuse, Rewind is a non-fiction reflection of Neulinger’s process—both then, and again now—of emotionally and psychologically reckoning with memories and experiences he’d locked away, far away from prying eyes. That alone makes it an unbearably sad account of rape and trauma. Yet the more Neulinger crawls back into his thorny past, the more it becomes apparent that his victimization—as well as Bekah’s—was not an isolated incident.
As is so depressingly often the case, it was part of a family tradition, since Henry spent his childhood being sexually assaulted by both Larry (who was apparently trying, in his own warped way, to express love) and Howard (who was primarily interested in asserting vicious domination over his siblings). It’s therefore no surprise that adult Henry felt most comfortable taking cover behind a video camera, desperate as he subconsciously was to maintain a safe distance between himself and a family that, as history had taught him, was liable to hurt him.
Henry’s decision to conceal his own ordeal for so long (only confessing it long after Sasha had begun spiraling out of control) undoubtedly contributed to his marriage’s collapse. It also speaks to the silence, often self-imposed by victims themselves, that allows such heinousness to continue—at least, that is, until someone stands up and says enough. Sasha, it turns out, did just that, first to his therapist, whom he confided in via crayon drawings that are almost too unbearable to take, and then in a courtroom where he persuasively testified that Howard had sadistically violated him. He’s a genuine profile in courage, finding the strength to do what’s right for himself, and his beloved sibling, not only from within, but from those family members who truly cared about him—none greater than his maternal great-grandfather Joseph, who learns, in the film’s tear-inducing centerpiece, that young Sasha is casting aside his painful past by taking Joseph’s surname as his own.
The fact that, when things got tough on the stand during Howard’s pretrial hearing, Neulinger wore Joseph’s yarmulke only underlines how true love is a force one can lean on, and derive power from, in times of great need. Rewind doesn’t know where this inherited cruelty and mistreatment originally began—although Henry suspects he didn’t turn out like his brothers because he was primarily raised by his father, versus his severe mother—nor does it have a magic solution to ending it, despite Neulinger’s current efforts to create new legal protocols that spare assault victims from a system of endless distressing interviews. But in its intimate depiction of perseverance and fearlessness, it conveys an unforgettable sense of all that’s stolen when children are abused—as well as the heroic bravery, compassion and togetherness required to combat such cruelty.