One of the first things we learn in “Partly Private” is that even though a majority of American men are circumcised, about 9/10 of the men of the world are NOT. If you’re curious about what happens to all those discarded American foreskins, we also learn that some of them are used for cosmetics. (I know I’ll never look at a jar of skin cream the same way again.) “Partly Private” is destined to be branded as “a documentary about circumcision”, but Danae Elon’s enlightening film is much, much more than that. Be prepared to learn, but also to spend equal time being amused and shocked. At the beginning of the movie, we meet Danae– a Jewish New York City woman– expecting her first child. At a baby fair, she’s turned off by the blatant commercialism and seeming shallowness of the event, but one booth stands out: a contingent encouraging mothers not to get their sons circumcised. One anti-circumcision advocate explains that the procedure cuts of a off a living piece of tissue which is the most sensitive part of a boy’s penis. Danae thinks about bucking the 4,000 year-old Jewish tradition and leaving her upcoming son’s genitals intact. Needless to say, her husband Philip– an Algerian Jew whose grandfather was a rabbi– isn’t too happy about Danae’s renegade idea. The expecting mother is determined to find out more, however, and her quest for answers starts in her hometown. One of the first quirky characters she meets is a cowboy hat-wearing, anti-circumcision activist named Buster, who meets Danae while riding a horse through the streets. A fight with a passerby ensues– and Danae, Philip, and Buster all get arrested for unlawful assembly and disturbing traffic. To top it off, the horse pisses in the street. Surreal as this scene is, more surreality is on its way… The couple’s adorable son Tristan is born, and Danae consents to her husband’s wishes, even going so far as to have a “traditional Jewish circumcision” at their apartment… which she seemingly regrets afterward. But sooner than you can say “foreskin restoration”, she’s expecting son number two, and the dilemma “To cut or not to cut?” comes into play again. The filmmaker travels the country and the world for answers, including England and Italy (where, specifically, she seeks out a church where Jesus’ own foreskin supposedly laid for years before it was stolen). But the most dramatic scenes–not for the squeamish– come in the Middle East, the birthplace of circumcision as “Abraham’s covenant with God”. In Turkey, we learn that boys are not circumcised until puberty, and the ritual is done like a big Chuck E. Cheese-style party, with music, clowns, costumes, rides, and a giant video monitor so that the entire family– and everyone else’s family– can watch the snipping. (If this is a “passage into manhood”, I’d rather stay a boy.) In The West Bank, she even attends a frenzied, noisy, primitive circumcision ritual, complete with a “sucking of the wound”. (Insert wince here.)
If Danae Elon wrote a script and sent out a casting call, she could not have found a more bizarre cast of characters or situations. Among those she meets are an elderly mohel (a traditional Jewish circumciser) who believes that he’s gonna get extra points on Judgement Day because of his rotting collection of all the foreskins he’s removed. (Insert wince here again.) Along the way, both Danae’s and our own feelings about religion a nd morals are called into play: we’re forced to ponder, among other things, “Just because something is a tradition, must we continue it?” So, in essence, “Partly Private” is “a documentary about circumcision”. But it’s also one of the most vivid and fun movies you’re likely to see in a long time. Can’t wait for the uncut (ahem…) DVD!
“Partly Private” director Danae Elon gave an exclusive interview to Jed Ryan:
JR: How do people react when you tell them that “Partly Private” is a movie about… circumcision?
DE: Some people are amused, some say they too had a dilemma, and actually so many people go through the same issues Philip and I did. Others who would prefer not to think about the subject begin to twitch their faces, and that’s when I quickly add, “It’s a Comedy on Male Circumcision”, so the next question is, “A comedy? Why is it funny?” Well, my biggest challenge is in getting people like that to come and see the film because it is not as much about circumcision for me as it is about the context in which this tradition/practice lies. It is interesting because in some ways it touches so many of our lives, regardless of what we think about the subject . So when I talk about “Partly Private”, I say it is a film about relationships, and decisions, and the somewhat absurdity of the entire subject.
JR: In your film, it’s an innocent trip to a baby fair that gets the idea for the movie in motion and takes you all around the world. Would you say that this was an “accidental” documentary?
DE: The unexpected happened when I found out that my husband and I had an argument about the subject. This is when I realized there was a dramatic arc to the film that was naturally embedded in the story. The personal drama allows the viewer to become invested and therefore gave me the liberty to explore the subject as I pleased and saw fit. I always found circumcision a bizarre phenomena… It was only when it hit home that I knew I had a story.
JR: Overall, in America, so many aspects of sex and sexuality are so out in the open… but based on your research, do you believe that a lot of men are still funny talking about circumcision… or, on a larger scale, their penises? Is it different in other parts of the world?
JR: As an independent filmmaker, what was the hardest part about getting the movie made?