American circumcision. It’s one of the most controversial and widely discussed topics. It’s also the name of a new full-length documentary that’s being Kickstarted beginning this week.
As a Jewish mother who made the unconventional choice not to have her son circumcised, I have an ongoing interest in projects that address the circumcision issue. When I learned a new film was in the works, I decided to catch up with director Brendon Marotta, to find out more about his project.
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Rebecca: I love the idea of a documentary about American circumcision. It’s a high interest, hot topic. But it’s also a really big topic with a lot of complexity. How do you plan to handle it?
Brendon: We treat the growing movement against circumcision as the main character. I made a deliberate choice not to include myself on camera, because it isn’t about me—it’s about the movement, and the antagonist is circumcision. Everything will be edited to tell that story.
Rebecca: This is a film about the anti-circumcision movement itself?
Brendon: Yes—and more, because to understand that movement, you have to understand the issue. You have to go deep into the science and the debate. The film is also a character study. When different subjects discover how deeply circumcision affects our culture, they react in different ways, revealing something about their characters.
Rebecca: Who do you profile in the film?
Brendon: We interview many of the individuals who are considered leaders in the intactivist (anti-circumcision) movement. We also interview doctors who’ve played a role in developing the formal polices impacting how the medical community councils parents on circumcision. This is just the beginning. There’s a big cast of characters.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little about your favorite documentary films and why you think they work. Is there a particular filmmaker who’s inspired you?
Brendon: One of the reference films for “American Circumcision” is a documentary on the abortion debate called “Lake of Fire.” I’ve shown that film to people on both sides of the abortion issue, and they’ve all found it really interesting and fair. While abortion is very different from circumcision, they both provoke massive controversy. In fact one mohel told me he wouldn’t appear on camera because, he said, “circumcision is going to be the abortion debate for the twenty-first century.”
Rebecca: So you get into the subject of Jewish circumcision in your film? Tell me more.
Brendon: The Jewish movement to question circumcision is deeply covered in the third act of the film. From a filmmaking perspective, you want the third-act problem to be something that seems insurmountable, but you know the hero will have to deal with it. “Okay, they overcame all that, but how will our hero overcome this one?”
Rebecca: You see Jewish circumcision as a third-act problem for the intactivist movement?
Brendon: Absolutely. The question is: How can you tell one of the oldest and most powerful religious cultures that their practice is harmful? In our film, Jewish circumcision is addressed in the context of a San Francisco ballot initiative.
Rebecca: I remember that well. San Francisco voters actually got enough signatures to get a circumcision ban on the ballot. There was no religious exemption.
Brendon: That’s right. During the San Francisco ballot sequence, a Jewish circumcision critic meets up with a very prominent rabbi outside the San Francisco city government building. They have a very interesting exchange about what this issue means for the Jewish community. In the film, we interview a number of Jewish men who feel circumcision harmed them.
Rebecca: Have you always wanted to make a documentary film, or were you compelled to make this one because you feel so strongly about the harmfulness of male circumcision?
Brendon: Honestly, I thought I’d be making escapist narrative films, like horror, science fiction and superhero films. I had no intention of doing documentary until I’d found this subject. Then, like many of my interview subjects, I had the “obsessive epiphany” and had to share that epiphany with others.
Rebecca Wald is a writer who lives in South Florida. In 2010, she launched Beyond the Bris, a web project focusing on the Jewish movement to question circumcision. She is co-author of the book Celebrating Brit Shalom, a guide for families wishing to welcome their sons with a non-traditional bris.