American Circumcision Movie
Photo from the film American Circumcision.

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Brendon Marotta
Screenwriter: Brendon Marotta
Cast: Georgeanne Chapin, Jonathon Conte, Dean Edell, Andrew Freedman, John Geisheker, Leonard B. Glick, Ronald Goldman, Ryan McAllister, Marilyn Milos, Soraya Mire, Brian Morris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/6/18
Opens: March 30 – April 28 in 15 markets. VOD release: July 3, 2018

“It won’t be long now,” said the surgeon as he circumcised the little boy.

“A rabbi and a minister bought a car together. The minister went to the carwash because in his religion it is customary to welcome a new member with the rite of baptism. The next day, the minister discovered the rabbi cutting the end of the exhaust pipe.”

The penis is a major subject of locker room talk. Jokes about circumcision—the removal of the foreskin of the penis—probably abound. A film about circumcision would then be a perfect topic for Michael Moore, maybe not the most thorough and convincing documentarian but clearly the funniest. But “American Circumcision,” a freshman feature project of director Brendon Marotta (who at 6’5” is probably asked about measurements), is no joking matter. The subject is as deadly serious as political divisions brought about by gun laws, abortion, and transgender rights. After all, when 120 million American men have circumcised penises, they are likely to be disturbed, even enraged, by a film that challenges their judgment or the judgment of their parents. In fact America, often considered the exception in our world, is the only country in the developed world to indulge in a procedure whose opponents consider it barbaric, unnecessary, a ignoring of choice, yet in the same respect a twenty-minute operation that promotes hygiene, cosmetic concerns, even, ironically, an opening to greater sexual pleasures than should be expected by an uncircumcised male.

The documentary does present both sides of the issue, though it is in no way balanced, any more than are Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” “Where to Invade Next,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Clearly Mr. Marotta considers himself on the side of angels, capturing dynamic footage of demonstrations in front of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, even an attempt in California to provide a law by referendum that would outlaw the practice just as sure as female genital mutilation has been illegal here since 1996.

Talking heads expressed similar views, some of these heads breaking down in tears, when they expressed anger at both the society and their parents for allowing the surgery when they were infants. Of course small children cannot make certain decisions by themselves and parents have the right to step in to do what’s best. But in this case the decision to have a surgeon, or for a Jewish infant a mohel, remove a section on the head of the penile shaft is a choice that should be left until the infant is 18 years of age.

On the pro-cutting side, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as recently as 2012 expressed their view that the benefits outweigh the risks, a decision that should come from the parents or from a mature man himself. From where I sit, their argument is a wishy-washy, mealy one. To insist that cutting part of the body, the part responsible for quite a share in creating the world’s population, is hygienic sounds absurd. Where is the proof that circumcised people are cleaner in any way? More important as one activist states to an appreciative audience while wearing a T-shirt expressing his politics, the uncircumcised penis is capable of multiple orgasms, a feat heretofore considered the possession of only the fair sex.

It was going to be obvious that some Jews and presumably Muslims, whose faith also commands circumcision, would consider the opponents of the country’s most popular surgery to be anti-Semitic, but again, where I’m sitting, that’s like saying criticism of kosher slaughter as more painful than routine killing of food animals must be the work of people who don’t like Jews.

Social change happens quickly in America, even when reactionaries are in charge of all three branches of the federal government. Obama “evolved” and turned in favor of gay marriage. His generals even promoted the right of transgender people to join the military. Ultimately America will continue to move forward progressively despite the unfortunate shifts of the pendulum back to the bad old days right now. And soon we can expect this surgery, both because it is barbaric (take a look at those torture-chamber-like clamps used to shut of the blood of foreskins) and because it is inflicted on infants who should have the right some eighteen years later, to opt out.

This is a splendid documentary which may be criticized by a boatload of people who have already crossed the Rubicon, cut the Gordian knot, or whatever metaphor you prefer, and who feel the obligation to defend what was already done. Even there, thankfully, there is a procedure to emulate the foreskin, but the length of time needed to do so and the painful process required would make that a choice of only a determined few.

Unrated. 101 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

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American Circumcision
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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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