Tone Grøttjord-Glenne talks about her documentary All That I Am, a story of pain, strength, resilience and hope, world-premiering in Toronto.
After turning 18, Emilie receives a call out of the blue, a request from her mother to return home after five years. She has been living in a foster home.
But there is a subject she is requested not to talk about. If she does, then the family, which includes two younger half-siblings who have been shielded from the reasons for her absence, will fall apart, she is told.
Tone Grøttjord-Glenne’s tender and inspiring All That I Am is a film about child abuse and its shocking emotional legacy, but also a study of how a victim can seek to overcome what seem to be insurmountable hurdles. The director follows Emilie over two years as she rebuilds her life, seeking to repair the fractured relationship with her mother, and resolving to finally explain the terrible circumstances of her early life to the younger members of her family, despite her mother’s earlier injunction.
Before she was introduced to Emilie, director Grøttjord-Glenne was determined to cover the subject of child abuse from the perspective of the victim, and liaised closely with police authorities during the project’s development. They eventually suggested Emilie, who had just turned 18, and was a person whom they considered to be “unforgettable”.
After two months, during which Grøttjord-Glenne involved Emilie in the research, the director asked if she would be the subject of the film, which Emilie agreed to. “When I felt that it would be good for her, that the film could be an empowering tool, then I asked her if she wanted to be part of it,” Grøttjord-Glenne confirms.
Emilie is very smart and is determined to help other kids who have suffered child abuse to speak out. She writes expressively of her experiences and is strong, kind and vulnerable in equal measure. She fears physical contact with the perpetrator (her former father-in-law) but she is determined to find employment or pursue further education opportunities. She also moves into a cool apartment with her boyfriend.
But she continues to bear a considerable emotional burden which can be read on her face all the time.
“The first recording we did was an extended shot that we see in the film,’ says Grøttjord-Glenne. “I asked her if she could look into the camera and we filmed her for ten minutes, and she went through all the emotions that a face can have. She was laughing, she was a little bit shy, she was scared, she cried, all of that, looking into the camera. I asked her afterwards how did it feel. We had a lens on so she could see her face reflected when looking into the camera (I didn’t really think of that, it was just a weather thing) but she said that she didn’t want to look into the mirror, she tried to avoid it. Every time she did, she felt so ashamed that she didn’t get out of the situation before.”
The character of Hanne, Emilie’s mother, is intriguing. She has felt an acute guilt over the years that she was unaware of the abuse that her daughter was suffering. She was therefore wary, at least initially, of being involved in the project, doing so mainly to support Emilie.
“Of course I felt many times that Hanne didn’t really want to be in the film,” says Grøttjord-Glenne. “It was way further down when we got to know each other during those two years. When she saw how the social impact was growing… I guess when she was feeling safe that she wouldn’t be the ‘horrible mum’ in the film, that’s when she was actually able to open up towards Emilia.”
In turn, Emilie is able to persuade her mother of the need to explain the past to the younger siblings, which will help strengthen the family ties. The film itself also helps to facilitate this, Grøttjord-Glenne argues, but it also illustrates the considerable difficulties along the way.
“You know that thing when you are in a room… and something has been done that is very uncomfortable and hard to talk about, that awkwardness, I felt it was very interesting as a filmmaker to try and grasp that,” she says.
“After the court case [when Emilie must give evidence against her father-in-law] my favourite scene is when they are back in the living room and the mum is standing there at the stove. And the way Emilia walks up to her, not sure if she should say something or not say something, and just looks at her… Rather than shy away from that, or edit around that awkwardness, I think we tried to emphasise how hard it is to talk about it.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the production team held screenings for employees of the social welfare agencies who had helped supply the information and permissions needed to make the film. The production notes stress how many of the personnel realized that their mandate – to help people to get back into work and to reintegrate as a fully functional member of society as quickly as possible – may actually hamper the recovery of some of the children they work with. Which is why, for the past two years, Emilie has been working on the impact campaign, going to conferences, speaking publicly, educating teachers.
“Also the film became part of the curriculum at both the universities of Bergen (Teacher education) and Østfold (Faculty of Health and Welfare Sciences). So it’s a lot of things that have happened, and it feels so great that we can give information and knowledge and a perspective to those people who work with young adults so that it becomes worth it for Emilie and her family to be part of this film.
“That she is actually making a difference and is reaching the people that didn’t recognise her [abuse] when she was a child.”