By Rebekah Kirkman
The road, often a site of journey and deep introspection, features prominently In Baltimore-based filmmaker Jules Rosskam’s essay-film Paternal Rites, which investigates trauma, family dynamics, and accountability, among other things. At some point while watching the film, I stopped overthinking all the things “the road” and the landscape and certain other footage could mean at various specific moments and followed along on this ride, letting scenes like the one of the small child riding a tricycle around the perimeter of a swimming pool just seep into my brain. Lacing together photos and audio from Rosskam’s parents’ 1974 cross-country road trip, and footage from Rosskam and his partner Alex’s 2013 cross-country road trip, home movies, and animated scenes, the film is narrated by recordings of long and difficult conversations between the artist and his parents and partner about the collateral damage that followed the abuse he endured as a child from another family member. It also creates a portrait of Rosskam’s father, whose stony edges seem to quietly soften throughout the film. I spoke with Rosskam about his narrative styles, the ethics of personal work, and memory-making and trauma.
Paternal Rites screens Sept. 21 at 8 p.m., Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., $10, $7 members (+$3 at the door).
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This conversation has been condensed.
Rebekah Kirkman: In the film, you've got these home movie footage parts, these scenes from road trips, the landscape, and then the animated interludes. That made me think about how memory is always reconstructed, and in our heads we're always revisiting places and remaking these scenes and happenings. What led you to use this collage of different kinds of imagery and footage?
Jules Rosskam: When I first conceived of the film, the sort of pretty still landscape shots were the first thing that I thought of, the first image I had when I thought of the film. And initially I actually thought the film would be constructed entirely of that imagery. And then as I got further into the process, started making the film, I discovered this previously unknown to me family home movie footage. I don't think in my life I had ever seen it, my parents hadn't seen it probably in, you know, 30 years or something. So it was a bit of a mystery, before it was transferred, what was even on there. Everything sort of developed organically as I went. When I went on the road to shoot, I brought my camera with me and I brought a bunch of both new film stock and I had bid on this lot of filmstock from 1975 or ‘74 when my parents went on their road trip, and so obviously it was all sort of inspired, and it was sort of an experiment to see if any of it would come out. And some of it did, some of it didn't. So I shot off all of that when I was on the road and then hand-processed it. The animation came last. I feel like all of these different visual elements speak to different mindsets but also different time periods. I think that by using these different visual strategies I was trying to both play with this idea about memory in terms of what memory looks like, but also what time period [memories] exist in. I think that part of what happens with all of these different visual elements is this push and pull between the past and the present and the future.
RK: Yeah, that old film stock can throw off a viewer, like, “I don't know when this was filmed, it looks older…”
JR: Yeah. It's interesting because I share often that when people who don't know me watch the film and haven't seen me until maybe I come up at the end for a Q&A, often they think a lot of the Super 8 footage that’s of me, they think it's my father — which I love. I wasn't trying to fool anybody. And it honestly had not occurred to me that people might even think that. But a lot of people do because they see the Super 8, they see someone who appears to be a man and they think “Oh, this is his dad.” And so there's an interesting thing I think that happens to them sometimes after the fact when they realize what they thought was not true.
RK: So there are those visual elements that we touched on, but also the film features a ton of dialogue. It feels like you're covering a lot of ground through these conversations, and as I watched it I was taking a lot of notes and I was veering down all these different roads, and probably doing some psychoanalyzing and stuff on the way, but can you talk about your choice to have the film feature so much conversation?
JR: I think that there is a sometimes-problematic power dynamic that happens in documentary, when you have someone being interviewed that you see on camera, and they're being asked questions and there is this direct engagement with the audience that leaves out the fact that what's actually happening is that there's a direct engagement with the filmmaker. And so there's a myth; the sort of triadic relationship that's really always present in documentaries where there's the relationship between the interviewee and the documentarian and the audience. I also think that, though not appropriate obviously for every documentary, dialogue is more inviting often than having someone directly address an audience. And ultimately the film is the reason I'm having these dialogues [with my family]. My mother and my partner, sure I could have these kinds of dialogues without the film, but my father I don't think ever would have had these conversations with me unless it was under the guise of making the film. So I think that in a way, there was no other way to have that happen. It's a film that isn't necessarily for everyone, but I have yet to talk with anyone after screenings that didn't find their way into the dialogue. A lot of people have said this is so interesting because even though I didn't have this exact experience in my family, [there are] so many dynamics you can pick up on over the course of the film through listening to these conversations between me and my parents. There is a real familiarity that emerges for people about the difficulty people have as they shift from being their parents' children to being their parents' adult children, and what kind of relationships are possible, and how you hold your parents accountable for the small and big failures. And all parents have them, right? I really think you can't be close to people unless you can be in intimate dialogue with them and I think hopefully the film also shows that — and that people can see that they can have these kinds of dialogues with their family members.
RK: Yeah, there are a lot of moments where those conversations feel really tense or you can hear someone’s voice breaking down, and I think it does convey that yes, this is hard, but probably worth it. What was it like to create a film that was so personal not just for you but also for your family? You say near the end of this film, talking with your partner, that you want to prolong the process so you never have to put it out. Or elsewhere you say that if you’d known going into it that this film was what you were going to make, you maybe wouldn't have made it. Did it ever feel too personal?
JR: The first word that comes to my mind to answer the question was, it was excruciating. And totally, for me, worth it. If I knew this was the film I was making I wouldn't have made it, not because I don't think I should have, but because I don't think I could have consciously put myself through that, and put my family through that. I think if I had said to them from the onset, I know exactly the film I’m making and this is the film, I don't think they would have agreed to be in it.... You know, it was really hard — in a lot of ways I think harder, much to my surprise, harder for my mother than it seems to have been for my father. I still have a lot of guilt about inviting my parents to look at really difficult things both about themselves and about our family. I think, at the same time, they've both grown a lot from it and have openly said that they are glad that I made the film.
Before I completely finished the film and considered it done, I showed my parents a cut of the film when it was about 80 percent done — basically where I had pretty much locked in my mind the story. I don’t want to say I asked for their approval, but I did want to know did they have any major objections, and a long story short: My mother was very unhappy, very angry about the film initially. And we had a six-month process probably until she came around to seeing why the film was made the way it was or why certain things were being told. And I did make a fair amount of choices about things that I didn't include, that other filmmakers might have included because they would have "made a good story" or made it more dramatic, but ultimately I didn't think that it was necessary information to include for this particular story. And so I did make active choices about protecting my parents from certain things in terms of making certain elements of their and our lives public. Then, really, as a filmmaker who is very interested in and concerned with ethics in documentary filmmaking, it was a very interesting and painstaking process for me to figure out what was OK to include and what wasn't and what do you do when your secrets are also somebody else's secrets.
RK: Something that I really appreciated in your film was how you talk about the abuse that you went through. When a person comes forward as a survivor of abuse, we often see the public or the community demanding proof, evidence, facts about what exactly happened. Those people are often trying to cast doubt on the survivors, too. But your film doesn’t present us with all these hard details, though we do get a sense of what happened to you. Can you tell me more about your decision to tell your story that way?
JR: From the beginning, I knew that I was not going to go into a lot of details about the abuse. I mean, I don't talk to really anybody about that and I don't feel like I need to. It's not in service of me, and it's not really in service of the audience. And I think, again, this for me comes back in some ways to questions about ethics and the way in which, for better or worse, I think sometimes documentaries that are about “a family secret” or that are about abuse end up feeling voyeuristic. I really, really tried to make sure the film didn't feel that way, and I think that I succeeded in that based on the feedback I've gotten. Part of that is because I don't shy away from clearly stating that thing happened. But I also don't go into the gory details because that's not really what the story's about, you know? I felt like there would probably be some people who wanted that. And I feel totally comfortable — in fact, I often intentionally do this as a filmmaker — not giving people what they want, or what they think is owed to them as an audience member. That's not what my films are about.
RK: Did making the film feel healing or reparative or restorative to you?
JR: Absolutely. At different points it also felt other ways that were not so positive. But the ultimate takeaway is absolutely. Even though I say had I known that this was the film I was going to make I wouldn't have made it, I'm really glad that I made it because it allowed for so many things to happen that were not going to happen otherwise, including having certain kinds of conversations with my father. I had been to therapy and I had dealt with a lot of the elements of this [trauma] in a way that I felt — you know, ultimately I’m a very high-functioning person and that is not generally something that keeps me from going about my life, of living my fullest life, but there are things that come up. And there were things that I hadn’t realized that I had not resolved. And the film helped me, in ways that I can articulate and also in ways that I really can't even articulate, it really helped me move through a lot of the stuff, especially around how my family dealt with the news. That part got processed in a way that it had not before.
RK: In another part of the film, I think it was your partner who suggested that it seemed like you were "seeking corroboration" for your experiences by interviewing your family. Did you ever feel that you had doubted your memories of your childhood and past?
JR: Yeah, I think actually I say early on in the film that maybe that's why I'm making the film, is to find some kind of witness, and without spoiling any part of the film for people that haven't seen it yet, I don't really find that in ways that I thought I would or in ways that I wanted. And yes, there were points in my life where I thought to myself, did I make all of this up? Not because really I thought it didn't happen, but because I think that's what happens when you go through an experience and there is no witness. Especially when you experience trauma — you know, ultimately that means you aren't even a witness because in traumatic experiences we so often dissociate in a variety of ways and so your memory, certain parts of your memory are not reliable. Often one doesn't have a clear linear memory of events exactly as they unfolded. I think for a lot of survivors of a variety of types of trauma that they experience with one other person who was abusing them, who maybe is denying it or is no longer alive to speak to it in any way, then when you are left as the only “witness” to the experience almost anyone would start to wonder if this really happened, especially when the thing is something that causes such an intense problem in your other relationships. In this instance, you're saying “a family member did something terrible to me,” and no one in the family wants to believe it. Even if they say they believe you, they don't want to believe it. I think even yourself [thinks], “I would rather this didn't happen to me.” I think sometimes actually the doubt comes from this wish to make the event go away.
RK: That made me think about something that a therapist voiceover says in the film about taking an implicit memory and making it into an explicit memory, and it's not just our experience but what we remember of it. That felt like a meta explanation for why you’re making this thing — “I have these memories and I need to make a concrete piece of art that tackles some of these things.” Maybe making a film and interrogating and investigating the past is a way to process and a way to verify, yes, this happened.
JR: Yes, absolutely. Data shows when one experiences trauma, your brain can't process the information into narrative. And so basically the event exists in fragments of images or sounds or smells or stations, and narrative is the way, for better or worse, that we understand our life's experiences. As you were mentioning, the therapist voiceover says at one point in the film, what matters has to do with what we understand about ourselves after the event, not even just the event. The film very much serves the function of creating a narrative; it's still a fragmented narrative but it's a narrative and so it's an interesting way of looking at the way that film can sort of aid in a process of healing.
RK: This film explores a lot of things deeply and then it also drops in a bunch of other things that can lead you down this alleyway to ponder fatherhood and masculinity, problems within masculinity, or just weird family dynamic stuff.
JR: For me, the film is very much about masculinity, in a lot of ways that are I think indirect — that ultimately is at the heart of the problem with my father. And you know, frankly, it's a problem that is not unique to him, it's a problem that is one that many straight, white men of his age group face. And as a trans-masculine-identified person, I do think I'm in an interesting position as sort of somehow both inside and outside of traditional masculinity. So it I think allows you to look at it from possibly a new perspective. I also feel drawn to doing that and to attempting to disrupt these toxic masculinities.