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PATERNAL RITES is a first-person essay film that explores the extraordinary and quotidian trauma of being in an American family. I had no intention of making a film about trauma. When I first started making PATERNAL RITES almost three 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 – my father in particular – in some new and different way. 

By retracing my parents’ trip, I believed I could find some version of the man who lived prior to the father I now know, but my father remained a mystery. No one, including his wife of 40 years, seems to know him. In a recent interview about my father, my mother says, “It will probably be the biggest question of my life. Who is he?” 
When I returned home after the cross-country trip, I encountered a family in the midst of unexpected change. Engaging my family in the making of this film has been catalytic. My brother, a reclusive addict who suffers from debilitating mental illness, has expressed interest in treatment for the first time in over a decade. In an uncharacteristic moment of emotional transparency, my father revealed that he has begun individual therapy.

As my family began to change, I, however, sank into depression. Surprised that these familial shifts I so desired were causing pain, not relief, I was forced to confront my reluctance to accept my father’s small gestures toward repairing our relationship.
I was sexually abused by my now-deceased paternal grandfather. Though this is not something I have kept a secret, it is also not something I’ve been public about. For this reason, I spent the first year and a half of making this film contorting myself and my interviews so that this central part of my family’s story could be avoided. But, of course, the more we attempt to avoid our past traumas, the more they haunt the present. As such,
the film necessarily turns toward understanding the impact his actions—and my father’s inactions in the face of this abuse—had on our family. 

As I try ever harder to understand my father, to dig deeper into why it is so difficult for him to connect with me — and with our family more generally — he pulls farther away. My brother changes his mind about going into treatment and instead relapses into drug use, paranoia, and deeper isolation. My relationship with my mother also changes as together we face the fact that she, alongside my father, created the family conditions for abuse. 

While the initial impulse for making PATERNAL RITES was the desire to know my father better, it has developed into a more nuanced exploration of the disconnect between what our parents hoped we would be and who we actually are. This disconnect is, at times, particularly acute for those of us who are part of the LGBTQI community. 

PATERNAL RITES is an impressionistic road movie that draws inspiration from podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab as much as it does from a lineage of LGBT essay filmmakers such as Jenni Olson, Marlon Riggs, and Gregg Bordowitz. The film uses static shots of the American landscape, travelogue footage recorded on Super 8, home movies, and animation, along with audio-diaries kept by my parents during their cross-country trip and present-day audio interviews to construct a complex visual and aural collage.

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