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. Paternal Rites draws inspiration from podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab and the long lineage of LGBT essay filmmakers in the U.S. such as Jenni Olson, Marlon Riggs, and Richard Fung.
Functioning as the film’s primary conceit, in the fall of 2013 filmmaker Jules Rosskam and his partner, Alex, set out to retrace a road trip that Rosskam’s parents, Marilyn and Skip, completed in the fall of 1974—just prior to his birth and their transition to suburbia and parenthood. The viewer hears audio diaries that Marilyn and Skip kept during the course of their four-month journey and sees photographs and travelogue footage recorded on Super 8: barely perceptible, grainy, and quickly receding signs and landmarks carry the viewer along their route: Boston, Mobile, Savannah, Chicago, Portland, Vancouver.
Interspliced between, we hear present-day audio interviews between Rosskam and a chorus of voices—including his mother, father, partner, and therapist. Interviews are heard, but the faces of speaking subjects are never seen. Here, Rosskam is attempting to make sense of conflicting narratives of his childhood, and to find forgiveness for the man who failed to protect him. But, in search of a story about his father, the filmmaker is confronted with the truth about his brother, which propels the film’s narrative to a startling conclusion.
The visual field of Paternal Rites is dominated by bright, pristine, and nearly-still images of the American landscape, which haunt the viewer with their splendor and banality, and with the layering of still images over live-action footage. Paternal Rites also utilizes the white screen, where colorful animations and beautifully rendered, hand-painted 16mm film are used to evoke the psychoanalytic process of memory’s retrieval and trauma’s repair.
Implicit throughout is the filmmaker’s queer and transgender subjectivity, which floats to the surface of the screen as the viewer is confronted with fragments of home movies of his childhood—iconic in their unremarkability—and hears audio recordings of contemporary conversations between Rosskam and Alex, who functions as Rosskam’s partner in life as well as in this project of decoding his past on screen. Together, they create a stunning visual portrait about the power of film to transform us.
Jules Rosskam is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, artist, and educator. Through the use of autoethnography and hybrid forms, Rosskam's interdisciplinary practice investigates the means by which we construct individual and collective histories and identities. Born in Chicago and raised in Philadelphia, Rosskam received a BA in Visual Arts from Bennington College in 2001. He then moved to New York City, where he developed a successful editing and production career working for MTV, The History Channel, Curious Pictures, and a wide variety of independent artists. While in New York, Rosskam joined the non-profit media arts organization Dyke TV, which produced an award-winning cable access television show for the queer community. Rosskam rose through the ranks to Executive Producer, and became one of the key organizers of the show and organization. In 2005 Rosskam premiered his first feature film, transparent,which was released to critical acclaim and awards both internationally and stateside. Frameline Distribution acquired the film in 2006, and it continues to be one of their most popular films. The film has screened in over 50 film festivals and had its broadcast premiere on PBS in June 2008. In 2006, Rosskam moved to Chicago to obtain a MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied with artists such as Gregg Bordowitz, Frédéric Moffet, Sadie Benning, and the late Barbara DeGeneivive. While in Chicago, Jules co-founded the popular monthly screening series, Threat Level Queer Shorts, which ran from 2008-2010. In Summer 2007, Jules received a Fellowship from The Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, to support the development of his second feature documentary, against a trans narrative. The film went on to play at film festivals worldwide and had its broadcast premiere on the CBC in June 2010. The Video Data Bank also acquired the film for distribution in 2010. With the generous support of the Center for Independent Documentary and the LEF Foundation, he is currently in post-production on his fourth feature-length film, Paternal Rites, a first-person essay film that explores the extraordinary and quotidian trauma of being in a family. Rosskam is also a fine artist whose paintings, installations, and performances have shown in galleries and venues throughout the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, he is a noted lecturer, speaker, and professor who has held positions at Hampshire College, SUNY Old Westbury, and Indiana University—Purdue, Fort Wayne. He is currently assistant professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.