Oscar Short Doc nominees interview: Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, Life Overtakes Me

Oscar Short Doc nominees interview: Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas,  Life Overtakes Me

Facing deportation, hundreds of refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with resignation syndrome, in which they withdraw into a coma-like state, trapped in a perpetual sleep lasting months or even years. Life Overtakes Me assesses the lives of the desperate parents who must care for their sick children.


On the face of it, seven-year old Daria is a healthy-seeming child just taking a nap. But she has been asleep for five months, the victim of resignation syndrome brought on by unresolved trauma. Likewise 12-year old Karen and Leyla (10), who have been in this same unresponsive state for 6 and 12 months respectively.


The countries of origin of the sufferers are not specified, but we are told that this condition afflicts many children from the Balkans or former Soviet States. What we are told is that they, together with their families, have had to escape violence and oppression to seek asylum in Sweden. And that the key component within the onset of resignation syndrome is the ongoing uncertainty over future status as they wait for residency status.


In the case of Daria, the news of her father’s violent incarceration and her mother’s rape were withheld from her until she heard the whole story at the asylum hearing. The session was conducted in Swedish, a language that she and her sister had quickly picked up since their arrival. When the application was rejected, Daria’s descent into sleep began.


Filmmakers Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas are a retired couple (she was a professor at Stanford University teaching an MA in documentary, he was a film editor) who now make films together. 


“We did know with some digging and just from what we have read in the past that people respond to stress and trauma in unusual and very different ways,” comments Haptas. “We remembered that after some women fled Cambodia after Pol Pot [they went] psychosomatically blind for a while having gone through that… And there is evidence during the Holocaust, in concentration camps somebody would go in to a corner and just curl up and die… We thought that [resignation syndrome] was a very unusual and in some ways very extreme response, but it certainly seemed within the bounds of what was possible.”


The condition has been reported in Sweden since the beginning of the new millennium, Samuelson points out, but since the refugee crisis of 2015 numbers of sufferers have increased alarmingly.


“When we started to understand about this, we thought how do we even live in a world where children simply give up and withdraw basically [towards] a route to death, they just give up,” Samuelson adds.


The pair concede that the process of chronicling the lives of the families was very upsetting, and that extreme sensitivity had to be continually observed. But they were also aware that they had a serious job to do.


“We gradually started filming. We didn’t descend on them like a helicopter, grabbing as much footage as we could before leaving,” says Samuelson. 


“Sometimes we were there all day just sitting with them and we wouldn’t even shoot a frame. So there was a relationship that was built in each case, and in a way that made it easier for us to do our filming. We made a commitment to them, they made a return commitment to us and opened up their lives… 


“There was a lot to do, we were shooting, we were recording sound, we were figuring out what our next shot would be. We kind of just closed ourselves us off and did it, once we started filming.”


To some extent the filmmakers were a diversion for the famiies, and helped their subjects to channel their thoughts elsewhere, if only briefly. 


“For the most part that they were grateful that we took them seriously… because they were very isolated. They weren’t having friends come over… I think the fact that we cared about this issue and that we cared about them, I think it actually helped,” claims Samuelson. 


“I brought magic tricks to do for the [kids], we would have coffee and cookies and we would walk with them when they went out for walks,” adds Haptas. “They have a difficult situation where they are doing repetitive, therapeutic activities constantly, getting the kids up every four hours, showering them in the bathroom or cleaning them, and I think breaking the routine was probably wonderful, in some way.”


The Oscar nomination is a boon not only in widening the debate surrounding the condition, but on the treatment of children worldwide. “Yes, we want to advance the discussion about resignation syndrome but help people connect that issue with what is going on with children everywhere who are detained in terrible conditions on our borders,” stresses Samuelson. 


“Every time we show the films in the States, at least, people bring that up, so it is [good] to be able to not just take this story qua Sweden, which is very important, but to be able to internationalise it. There are many children suffering from awful trauma all over the world, so we just hope this nomination will advance the discussion, and we are partnering with Oxfam to do some outreach. 


“Yes, we were thrilled [with the nomination]. We weren’t jumping up and down, but that’s because we are not jumping up and down types of people.”