Joe Cultrera

Still from Hand of God: Paul-Window

Paul Cultrera looks back on his abuse by a parish priest

Cultrera: Tales of the Old Days

My youth was spent in the Italian America neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was a small but vibrant playground. Our houses and our lives were connected by culture, clotheslines, and cookie recipes. I was frequently in a tug of war between the embrace that neighborhood gave me, and the promise the railroad tracks at the bottom of my street offered.

I learned to make movies by fiddling with a Super-8mm camera in the basement of our house—the one my Sicilian grandfather helped build in 1915. Almost every film I’ve made has had some piece of connective tissue tying back to that edifice and the large, loud family that once occupied it. In 1977 I used the train tracks to head to New York City. Thirty years later I returned to live in that same house. In between that time, I studied at the School of Visual Arts; created Fellini-influenced narrative films about the old neighborhood (Of the Neighborhood and In His Frame), as well as documentaries about blue collar life (Leather Soul), the commerce of Salem (Witch City), and the sins of the faith (Hand of God). I worked as an editor and occasional director for clients as diverse as Human Rights Watch, the Rolling Stones, and Food Network. After a decade of traveling back and forth to New York City, the pandemic has me editing TV shows back in the bedroom I once shared with my big brother. The clothesline out back still squeaks tales of the old days on every sunny day we hang our wash.

Hand of God is a film first and foremost about family. It has an investigative spine, but at its human core it is a story of how bad things happen to good people, and how those people react and survive by forming a tight circle. The film has no agenda except to speak in true detail about my family's experience. I wanted to inform through experience, not through expert analysis. I wanted people who did not grow up Catholic to see what that was like and how our blind faith allowed these sorts of crimes to happen and go unspoken about. For Catholics there would be an obvious recognition and maybe a sense of healing because of the portrayal of strength in family.

Clockwise from top left: Director Joe Cultrera is encountered by an angry Bishop Richard G. Lennon of the Archdiocese of Boston; Baptism--water becomes a symbol of Baptism, tears, and cleansing; Web Boy--a Catholic childhood is caught in a dirty web of deceit; Father Birmingham--dirty laundry is hung out on the Cultrera family clothesline

Images by Hugh Walsh from the Cultrera documentary, Hand of God

Joe Cultrera

in his family's home at age 2