A 'Cut' above the rest

Filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s latest documentary takes a powerful look at the practice of infant circumcision from a uniquely Jewish perspective.

Ungar-Sargon 311  (photo credit: Courtesy of Cut/ PR)
Ungar-Sargon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Cut/ PR)
For the past two months, Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has been driving across the United States in a rented car, sleeping in strangers’ houses, and screening his tradition-challenging documentary Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision to audiences as small as three, and as large as 140. It’s all part of a 30-stop tour arranged by The Whole Network, a grassroots group of circumcision opponents who are hoping Cut will raise awareness about the alleged drawbacks of male infant circumcision.
In the film, Ungar-Sargon, who is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, queries rabbis, mohels, Chicago professors and even his own brother and father, about a practice that is perceived by many as central to Judaism. The film makes the case that infant circumcision is physically damaging and ethically questionable, but does so in a way that gives both sides their say.
The filmmaker’s upbringing in a religious Orthodox Jewish family adds an intriguing angle to the documentary.
Ungar-Sargon says he currently belongs to two Jewish communities in Los Angles, one is Modern Orthodox.
Cut was released in 2007 to critical praise –The Chicago Tribune called it “informative and thought-provoking” – but the film drew relatively little notice in a country where circumcision is as American as apple pie.
However, according to the director, there has been renewed interest in the film since this spring, when the circumcision issue received a barrage of media attention due to a proposed voter initiative in San Francisco that had sought to make circumcision illegal there.
That initiative was later removed from the ballot by a California judge; however, interest in the circumcision question has remained. Ungar-Sargon says the present tour would have been impossible when the film was released four years ago.
Cut is being shown in art-house theaters, on college campuses, and at Jewish community centers, public libraries and churches.
“I'm staying mostly with organizers, although sometimes it’s necessary to get a motel depending on the driving schedule,” says Ungar-Sargon, who laments being away from his wife Pennie. She’s back home in Los Angles, looking for a job in the business end of the film industry.
“The rabbis set out laws about how long a husband is allowed to be away from his wife. These laws were designed to accommodate different professions. Sailors, for example, were allowed to be away longer than men of other professions. Of course, filmmakers didn’t exist when they had these discussions, but this tour is certainly leading me to a new appreciation of this part of Jewish law,” he says.
That aside, Ungar-Sargon says being on the road feels very natural to him.
“Maybe it’s because my family moved around a lot when I was growing up, but there’s something beautiful to me about the simplicity of life on the go,” he says.
“Moreover, I have this amazing opportunity to meet remarkable people all over the country. And the time-frame of the tour means that I stay just long enough for people to get to like me and not long enough for them to start noticing all of my flaws.”
A high point of the filmmaker’s trip came during a screening at the University of Chicago where his father, Dr. Julian Ungar-Sargon, was in attendance and fielded audience questions along side his son.
“A member of the audience asked how I would have voted had the San Francisco ballot initiative gone forward. I asked whether he wanted to hear my father’s answer as well. The questioner stated that he knew what my father would say. My father challenged him on that point and proceeded to explain that he would have voted for the initiative, because more than a million babies being circumcised every year in the United States was an ethical calamity and he thought it was great that San Francisco was taking the lead on this issue,” he says. Before making Cut, Ungar-Sargon says he does not think his father considered circumcision to be an ethically problematic act.