In her documentary “Partly Private,” which premieres at the Tribecca Film Festival, Danae Elon wonders whether or not she should circumcise her son. She is leaning against it and her father is against anything religious. Yet her husband, Philip, wants to keep the tradition of his father and his grandfather, who was a rabbi. Should she stick to her guns or acquiesce to her husband’s wishes out of a love for her spouse?
In her quest to learn more about circumcision, Elon travels to Italy, Israel, Turkey and England, but gets arrested on the Upper West Side of her native Manhattan. Elon visits a sex-toy-shop, a church, a spot where Abraham may have circumcised himself and a location where Jesus’ foreskin might have been stored.
The film is fascinating, humorous and disturbing. You’ll be mystified as you see the “Circumcision Palace,” in Turkey where boys between the ages of six and nine dress in elaborate outfits, wave to clowns and go on a ride, only to be to shot up with Novocain and then circumcised. One boy cries that he doesn’t want to go through with it.
In London, Elon meets a mohel, or one who performs the circumcisions. He proudly shows her a glass jar of foreskins he’s kept. In Calcutta, a man manages to keep a straight face while insisting that they had Jesus’ foreskin but it was stolen in the 1980’s. In Washington D.C., there are even men with an odd contraption they claim helps them restore their foreskins. Early on the film, a young man shows off his song and illustrated book about his angst over being circumcised.
“What is wrong with me?” This is the question Elon wonders aloud, trying to figure out why she questions the tradition of circumcision, where the majority of Americans do it without thinking so much about it. It doesn’t help when Dr. Howard Shaw shows how a medical circumcision is done in the hospital. Using a dummy, he show how the baby is strapped in and a metal device is sued to expose the foreskin on the metal, making it easier to cut and allowing less blood. This seems much worse than the ritual circumcision, which takes less time. Shaw is a funny character, but the scene where he shows how a baby is strapped down will make men want to turn away and might actually make a mother think twice about having a circumcision in the hospital. It surely doesn’t make Elon feel any better.
Some interesting tidbits are that England’s health care system stopped covering circumcision, whereas it became prevalent in the United States after World War II because it was though to be more hygienic. The film gets a bit sophomoric, when Elon asks young New York City women if they prefer their men to be circumcised or uncircumcised. She’s told that based on the HBO show “Sex and the City,” it’s better for the men they date to be circumcised. Yet this moment of levity is needed to balance out the film and it serves to offset some of the more nerve-racking scenes.
Another scene that will make you chuckle is when Elon visits her home state of Israel and is shown flint rock, which was supposedly used by Abraham to perform a circumcision on himself. She wonders if it is sharp enough and gets a demonstration.
“Partly Private,” is pretty fair in that it mocks religion, but then shoes there is some purpose to it. It shows many different characters that have a certain level of insanity to them, including a joke where her husband Philip has told her that it’s a custom to take a baby’s foreskin and put it in the couscous, which is served for lunch.
Elon goes to places you wouldn’t expect to go and manages not to trivialize the ordeal. Her husband Philip is a likeable character and it’s clear that circumcision is important to him, even though he isn’t religious himself. And Elon’s father, noted Israeli writer Amos Elon, tells her to ignore a psychoanalyst’s claim that symbolic castration and is motivated by a husband’s jealousy of the newborn.
The documentary is well-paced and fairly comprehensive. The only thing I would have liked to hear is the Palestinian viewpoint, as Elon goes to Hebron to speak with Palestinians in an effort to locate the place where Abraham was circumcised. Still, they likely would say they do it because it is a commandment, just as Elon’s Hasidic friend does so.
As it turns out, Elon has two sons over the course of the film and she has to decide what to do with the first son and what to do with second. “Partly Private,” is shocking and informative. And you wouldn’t expect a film about circumcision to make you laugh, but it does. It also might make you choke on your popcorn. Because it manages to bring a bevy of different looks and locations, while maintaining its power, the film has a lot that anyone can latch on to. “Partly Private,” makes the cut.
Directed by Danae Elon
Danae Elon, Philip, Touitou, Dr. Howard Shaw
World Documentary Feature (Canada)
The film is in English with subtitled dialogue in Hebrew and Arabic
1 hr. 24 minutes