Our childhood experiences shape us into who we are today. But what happens when those who are meant to protect us minimize trauma or damaging behaviour and condition us from infancy to bottle up our emotions when experiencing abuse? This is the question that brilliant film director Jules Rosskam sets out to discover the answer to in his disturbing, but unequivocally essential, must-see motion picture.
Out of all of XPOSED’s thrilling and uncanny candidates for this year’s edition, Paternal Rites is the most touching, brutal and indispensable. The international queer film festival’s heartrending addition allows us access into the troubled world of an abused child and now scarred adult who shyly and desperately seeks help to try and make sense of what happened to him. The movie is depicted from a first-person perspective, putting together a collection of photographs, short videos, audio diaries and memorabilia that take up the entire screen time. The fleeting images are part of a road trip that the Jewish American Rosskam family took in 1974. The four-month journey immerses the viewer in a multicoloured exploration of the past and includes unique representations of a variety of locations from Portland, Vancouver, Chicago, Savannah and Boston.
However, this enticing travelogue footage is by far the film’s centrepiece. Of primary concern to both the director and the viewer is the audio. The latter includes a series of discussions between Rosskam, his therapist, partner, as well as several interviews and recorded conversations that the protagonist has with his mother and father. These reveal not only the harrowing story of neglect, abuse and trauma that Jules has been through, but also the ignorance and dismissive attitudes that he has had to face as a result and silently struggle with over the years. The absent paternal figure in Rosskam’s life has deeply affected him during his forming years and continues to confuse, dishearten and pain him as a grown adult. His prolonged meetings with his therapist are not enough to bring closure, which is why the young man decides to have a heart-to-heart talk with his dad. During their conversation, it becomes apparent that his parent is not apologetic and does not even recognise the toxic effects that his abusive behaviour has had on his now matured son. Although the dialogue is gut-wrenching to listen to, it poses a question that viewers undoubtedly relate to: how can one overcome trauma and repair a broken relationship with a family member if the latter refuses to acknowledge the abuse and is not accountable for the suffering their actions have caused?
The director also tackles all of the years of self-blame, shame and confusion during which Jules would constantly doubt his perception and try to find explanations or arguments for his parent’s unloving behaviour. He would rationalize the abuse with common excuses, including how his father might have been a victim of maltreatment himself, how he was misunderstood or that he could not know any better and did the best he could. These justifications peel off one by one as the movie progresses and the viewer gets a deeper look into the agonizing effects of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
The film’s most glaringly shocking moment is when Rosskam gives his therapist a chilling account about his mother’s emotionally abusive behaviour and confesses that until his discussion with a professional he deemed it to be funny and normal. Being traumatized by his father, Jules would be unable to sleep many nights and stay up late crying. When he would go to his mother’s room and wake her up to ask her for comfort, she would react aggressively and sarcastically tell him that she can’t help him, unless he wants her to smack him over the head and knock him out so he can get some “rest”. Jules would end up lying on the hallway floor, crying himself to sleep. As a child, he was also abused and physically assaulted by his troubled brother, Andrew. When he would beg his parents for help, they would do nothing to protect him. However, in a recent conversation between Rosskam and his mother, the woman places the blame on him and claims he should have insisted more on getting help and that he had no evidence. Instances such as these were not uncommon in Rosskam’s childhood and the film does a sublime job at showcasing how abuse is played down and cold, abnormal reactions to it are internalized by the victim, leading to self-destructive behavior and self-hatred.
Paternal Rites is gruelling to watch, but nonetheless an eye-opening analysis on human psychology and an essential, riveting addition to this year’s XPOSED International Queer Film Festival. The motion picture tackles a wide range of intriguing topics such as memory retrieval and adult coping mechanisms for childhood abuse, but also the importance of expressing repressed feelings and the healing power of filmmaking. Allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions, Rosskam’s first-person project is a slow-burning masterpiece that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat without much visual stimulation, shedding light on the strength and emotional labour it takes to overcome trauma and lead a normal, happy life.