The directors detail what propelled them to explore an illness that has been plaguing refugee children in Sweden.
Imagine walking into your child’s bedroom and finding them breathing but unresponsive. They’ve shown symptoms of being tired and they aren’t drinking for a few days, and then they are in a Sleeping Beauty like slumber. Doctors can’t tell you when you can expect them to wake up. Netflix’s Life Overtakes Me is a modern horror film, and directors Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas follow several families as their lives are turned upside down.
The most disturbing thing about Resignation Syndrome is that it’s affecting families who are seeking asylum or fleeing more dangerous territory. With constant talk of securing our borders and refugees struggling to find safety, could this be a more worldwide problem in the next few years? Cases have been appearing all over the world.
Samuelson and Haptas were able to film these families because they did everything themselves. They told me about how hard it was to be around these families with no way of helping them. The documentary is intimate with global implications. You never think something you see on the news could affect the children sleeping down the hall.
Awards Daily: When you both first heard about Resignation Syndrome, was it an automatic deep dive to learn more about this illness?
Kristine Samuelson: When I first read an article about it, I was stunned. As a parent, and as a human, I couldn’t believe that we live in a world in which this could happen. When John and I talked about it, it was a physical manifestation of the level of trauma they are experiencing. We decided that I would go to Sweden to see what I could find out. That took some time because there was a lot of other media swarming all over the story. We persisted.
John Haptas: Very often, the consequences of stress and trauma are inside someone. You don’t see it. You’re always looking for a microcosm of making a documentary film, and to see the in-your-face depiction of the consequences of that really struck us as something that would make a good film.
AD: It played like a horror film to me. It’s every parent’s nightmare that they have no answers or no way of knowing how or when it will change.
JH: I think these parents were just terrified. They didn’t know what was going on. The doctors said the parents were looking at them wide-eyed. You can imagine that it’s a nightmare to see your child be unresponsive like that. It’s often lost in situations like this that the parents, as caregivers, are forgotten. They were getting up every four hours to take their kids to the bathroom or feeding them with the feeding tube. We would show up to film and the parents would tell us they are too exhausted and we would drive back. They were exhausted all the time.
KS: The child usually goes into this condition over a few days or so, and the fact they start drinking makes them take them to the hospital. They’re dehydrated. The doctors have seen this before. This has been going on in Sweden for about 20 years, so they inform the parents that it’s not unique and this is what you’re going to do. It’s a psychosomatic illness. The fear percolating in the family is only resolved when something steady happens. They ger residency, or they get a job—something that provides a platform of stability for the family. They are in this holding pattern with no agency. They are at the mercy with other factors.
AD: How long did you spend with each family?
JH: We were in Sweden over the course of a year for about 100 days spread over 5 trips. Among all the families, we spent a lot of time with the people. That’s really the only way you can make a film like this. We could do it because Kris stopped teaching a few years ago, and I stopped taking jobs as an editor. It was just the two of us doing everything. I shot it, Kris did sound, and we kept an eye on what’s going on. We could just roll with what was required to get it done. We could wait and wait and spend time with the families. Terrified people aren’t willing to open up without trust. We were able to slowly build that trust with the families over an extended period of time.
AD: There’s that horrible scene where Karen’s mother breaks down and cries over her son, and it made me wonder what it was like to be in the rooms with these families going through this trauma. Observing them has to be hard as well.
KS: It was very difficult to be there and not be able to help, but, on the other hand, you’re filmmakers and you know you have a job to do. You’re blinking through tears to watch it. It wiped you out.
AD: I was interested in the nature shots that segued us to another story or hid the speaker while he or she was talking about a particularly horrific event. For instance, we have the very, very slow camera shots in the woods when the mother recounts how she was beaten and assaulted alongside another woman. Why did you want to include those shots of nature?
JH: It was serving two purposed for us. We had coffee with a Swedish cinematographer just because we had a friend in common. We found out after a while that he was doing drone photography. We had never planned to use it, but we wanted to get out of the apartments. He did drone cinematography unlike we had ever seen. It was low and very slow, and we wanted to worked with him because we could have visuals that could be very compelling, moody, and beautiful but not demanding. It allowed the viewer to listen to the important things that narration was saying. The two types of place we would use them would be the heart of some of these stories and move away from the faces of these parents. We wanted to just hear their words but have the picture take second place to that. We thought that would make the stories more powerful.
AD: That was very effective, I have to say.
JH: The second place we used them was interstitial where we would move family to family. We wanted the viewer to listen to the experts and what they could provide to the story. And also, these are claustrophobic apartments and we wanted the audience to take a break. The opposite of that was nature. You may have noticed that the sound design was very different in the interstitial moments.
AD: I did, yeah!
JH: There’s no music in the film at all—we didn’t want to tell the audience how to feel. We stuck to effects and ambiances but in the nature shots, we used a stylized sound design.
AD: When we would leave each family, it made me think of spaces where a parent might go outside and scream out their frustration. Just to alleviate some of that pent up energy. I don’t know why it made me think that—something about how peaceful the shots were. I’m actually excited to see that cinematography on the big screen.
KS: I think that thought of the scream is deliberately intended in the sound design, which, I think, you will be able to appreciate when you see the film in the theater. There’s about 5 different sounds combined to create the atmospheric soundscape of each of the settings.
AD: Were you surprised to find out that politicians or experts assumed kids were faking it or doing it for attention?
KS: It’s extremely hard to believe this is happening, and you want to look for an explanation. Fakery, certainly, comes up as an option. In the early days, and this is a very hotly contested issue some 10 years ago, people cried out and said it was fake. That’s when people did the blood work and did all these tests. It never has ended. There might be some that aren’t real. I think it’s very human to think about that.
AD: We don’t like to live in that grey area.
JH: And when the issue is related to political issues, you very often, particular these days, have a push back from the right. There’s so much sentiment against immigration right now. Hungary and Poland and Scandinavia and Australia—it’s not just the US. I think when there’s anything is sympathetic towards immigrants, trolls always come out from the right. There’s also people from the left—I won’t say it’s just the right. People become skeptical of anything that would lead a government to explore more humane policies. It’s really unfortunate. It’s been the case in Sweden in the last few years—certainly in our country. And that’s what drew us to this in the first place. We want people to think about our borders. We’ve never had a Q&A where people don’t bring up our borders and ask about familiar situations. There’s a lot of different kinds of reactions discussing trauma. This is a particularly extreme one. We know you can’t be a refugee and not be stressed and traumatized.
Life Overtakes Me is streaming now on Netflix.