Given its unassuming budget and aims, The Circumcision Movie (2019) is one of those films that flies under the radar, overshadowed by more widely promoted documentaries such as Brendon Marotta’s American Circumcision (2018). Both are independently financed productions, but while Marotta’s film effectively preaches to those already converted to the intactivist cause, The Circumcision Movie addresses itself to prospective parents of newborn boys, specifically in the United States where neonatal male circumcision has long been incorporated as a “routine” surgical component of medicalized childbirth.
Directed by nurse-midwife Emily Rumsey, The Circumcision Movie is grounded in an ethics of compassionate care, with an emphasis on emotional and interpersonal wholeness as much as on genital intactness.
Running at just under 40 minutes, The Circumcision Movie could readily meet the informational needs of today’s parents bewildered by the quasi-medical garb of this ancient religious and cultural practice. The viewpoints of Jewish and Islamic mothers are included, not with the aim of mockery or even critique; rather, the filmmaker uses these voices as a foil in order to focus on the meaning of male circumcision in a broadly secular, materialist culture—one in which marriage equality and children’s rights, for example, have gained currency. Only in a patriarchal religious context, Rumsey seems to argue, does male circumcision make any sense at all. Here the filmmaker could have ventured into more progressive aspects of contemporary religious practice, such as brit shalom; but her focus on medicalized childbirth in the United States remains tight.
With the help of relevant experts, the medical and religious histories of circumcision are both discussed in The Circumcision Movie, together with various implications of the procedure for healthy adult sexuality. By and large, however, the film allows parents to voice their concerns, outlining the challenges they faced in resolving internal and external conflicts surrounding a socially normative, but medically unnecessary and highly invasive, surgical procedure. The viewpoints of circumcised fathers of intact boys, in particular, serve to highlight the holistic benefits of adopting a new, post-mutilation norm.
Animations of genital anatomy are par for the course, and The Circumcision Movie is no exception. These are relatively sparse and innocuous enough, although the film does depict an actual (Jewish) circumcision, a scene from which the current reviewer had to briefly look away.
Various participants in the documentary also contributed to the film’s soundtrack, which gently underscores the filmmaker’s attentiveness to compassionate, holistic care—not just of the newborn infant, but of the family unit itself.
As Rumsey has said: “I am far more ‘against’ circumcision than the movie explicitly states, which was a definite strategy—meet people where they are at and not hammer them over the head.”
The Circumcision Movie is a far cry from more polemical offerings in the documentary genre. It is for that reason (and perhaps too on account of its shorter running time) better positioned to persuade prospective parents against “routine” acceptance of unnecessary, painful and harmful genital surgery on infant males.
Chris Coughran is an independent researcher.
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