ALL THAT I AM Director Tone Grøttjord-Glenne on using documentary storytelling to prevent child sexual abuse

ALL THAT I AM Director Tone Grøttjord-Glenne on using documentary storytelling to prevent child sexual abuse

ALL THAT I AM documents the journey of Emilie, a young sexual abuse survivor, who decided to share her story in order to protect other children. By foregrounding Emilie’s experience as she tries to heal from the abuse, Tone shares how she navigated a very complex and heart-wrenching subject and the work she is doing to prevent child sex abuse in Norway and around the world. Interviewer questions by Jessica Weiss.

Alexander: My name is Alexander Huser and I am a Film Critic and Journalist and I am sitting here with Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, who is the director of this documentary All That I Am. To start with I would like to just ask you to give a brief summary of this film please.

Tone: It is a film about Emilie who is a young adult, and she is starting her life again. First after being sexually abused by her stepfather, from the age of six to twelve. When she reported her abuse, he was imprisoned. She was placed in different foster homes by the social welfare system. In the film we meet her as a young adult, 18 years old, and she is moving back in with her mom and her abusers, two biological children, her step siblings, and her younger sister. The film is on a quest to find out how to start your life over again, and how to build that relationship with your caretakers, with her mom, with her siblings. How to find her own identity with the trauma she has experienced.

Alexander: And what was it that made you take on this very challenging but important topic?

Tone: there was a series of court cases in Norway in around 2015. I read about a lot of these court cases. Also, I read about extreme violence against children, domestic violence. I felt there was a red thread through all the cases. The children themselves had felt they tried to reach out in behavior or by saying it indirectly but the adults around them had failed in their role to see and to believe, to take action and to help children out of it. I just felt a responsibility to ask a filmmaker to make a film that could really contribute to changing that. To make everyone aware of the responsibility we all hold.

Alexander: Throughout the film there is a recurring theme with a motif of falling snow, could you tell us about the significance of this scene? 

Tone: We are following Emilie very closely in the film, the camera is almost always resting on her face, and that was a choice we made very early. On the other side, you do need some breathing space in the film; where you can be taken out of that more claustrophobic visual style and we felt like the choice of snow would be good to use. There is something very clean about snow, it is something that covers things, it is something comforting with new falling snow. Also, it is a picture that can take you into something more abstract. We use the snow when we use the sound recording of the police interview that she did when she was twelve and it is very heavy and the contrast to that can be a more of an open picture where you can kind of go into your own thoughts. On the other hand, we didn’t want to, we could also use the picture, the police interview was taped so we could see her at the age of twelve. But we chose not to use it because it became more concrete and went back into history which really broke the idea of following her in her everyday life. In time, as things happened, we tried to. When she gets pressured by the welfare administration in order to try to find a job she kind of dissociates, she kind of falls out, and with the sound picture and all of that, we tried to go in her head, so it becomes more of a memory than a concrete looking back at the police interview. 

Alexander: As you say the film is very close to Emilie, both in an observational film but also the camera is following her very, very tightly in the frame, can you tell us about this approach and this choice?

Tone: I think speaking with Emilie and getting to know her and also observing her in different meetings and with other adults, often, it became a conversation between them about her life. She became an observer in her own life with other people talking about her or making decisions for her. She became this passive observer. In the film, I guess we just really wanted to look at her when she experienced how it was to be put on the side a little bit in her own life. And the other aspect is, some people take a lot of space and they use their voice, and they raise their voice, and they get their opinions through, but Emilie is a very quiet young woman. I think to listen to her is not only to listen to her words but to listen to her body language, to all of her, and she needed help from the camera to do that. I think those are the two main reasons. We are in a lot of office spaces too, and not always so easy to film so I think visually when you come into an office space your brain switches on and you go to something logical in your brain, the way you are viewing it. But when you are in the office space, and you are watching her, and her emotions and her reactions to how other people spoke about her or to her, you were still in that room with empathy or with your emotion and your heart. So that was something that was really important, to make something that could speak to your empathy and to your heart. 

Alexander: As you say, during the film, you’re filming in different meetings etc. with different government offices and institutions. Was it difficult to get that access and how was the collaboration with these institutions?

Tone: I was surprised that it was so easy to get that access. I thought it would be hard, yet it wasn’t. Even the Court case with the stepfather needing to approve or with the welfare administration who’s used to being in the media but being portrayed in not a very positive light. I assumed that would be hard to do but we met a lot of open doors, people invited us in. Of course, you can be invited in, you can be in the room, but I think the quality you get out of the room is the trust that you build as you are there. So, one thing is to get in, the second thing is to kind of make it a safe space for everyone to relax to be as up to normal as you would be. That was something we worked with all the way along. But I definitely experienced a lot of “yes” in the making of this film.

Alexander: How was the development of the relationship between Emilie’s mother and Emilie during the process of filming, also regarding openness. Because it seems Emilie was open when you started filming, she had made a choice about being open with her story, but on the other hand there seems to be a process and this is also discussed during the film when they have this conversation about “this is going to be a film and we have to deal with that” so how was this process?

Tone: We did spend a lot of time with Emilie’s mom and Emilie before we started filming. Making sure that they really understood that when this film is released everybody’s gonna see it and they’re gonna recognize you. You know, her close family, what she kept a secret from them from the past is not gonna be a secret anymore. Her grandparents, cousins, neighbors, and everybody is gonna understand this is her family history. Even though she didn’t tell anyone so far, at that point they will know. And Emilie’s mom, I think she decided to participate in the film because she wanted to give something to Emilie, and she understood it was something important to Emilie, and she felt she failed her on so many levels before, so she wanted to do this thing for her. But she was mentally so locked up, like she didn’t know how to open up, and I think that's been a way that she has reacted in her life too. When the police came one day at her door and overnight, she became the single mother of four small children, working part-time, being a student. She didn’t have time to process any of that or she didn’t receive any help to process that so her method became; I am closing off all emotions and I am just getting the shit done, I am going to school, I am getting the bills paid, and I am getting the kids where they need to be, and there is no time for processing, and then that became her method for so long. She told me later when the film was finished, “I knew when we were gonna make this film, that I would, in that process, need to talk to my two youngest children and tell them about the family secret. And I felt saying yes to the film, I would be forced to do that because I knew everything else inside me worked against openness”. So you can see in the film she seems cold or not very open or not very close to Emilie. You can see Emilie is kind of longing for it like the way she is crossing the kitchen floor to stand next to her mom. You know, there are so many small signs Emilie wants something from her mother and she’s not giving it to her. But as we were there filming, the topic, every time we came that topic was raised in a way, just by our presence. I think Emilie got strength from filming also, to try and bring the conversation up with her mom over and over again. From there they ended up sitting on the sofa and having that conversation for the first time and the mom, I think, really tried to open up to her as far as she possibly could. That felt, for Emilie, that felt really important, she needed that in her life, she needed that recognition to be able to move forward. I think there is something to learn in that for all of us, it seems like an impossible conversation to have, but it is possible. It can be very liberating, and it can be very healthy, it is possible. 

Alexander: How has it been now the film has been released, have they seen the film? How have Emilie and her family’s reactions been? And also, what kind of precautions did you take in before you launched the film?

Tone: When the film was almost edited, an almost locked picture, we invited Emilie first, she wanted to come alone without her mom. So, she watched the whole film. It was very heavy for her, for instance, the police interview from when she was twelve, she never heard that, she was in the room and gave the interview (at the age of 12), but she never heard the interview. Even though she knew the police interview was in in the film and I wrote down every word that she said and sent to her in advance so she would know exactly what we used from the  interview, so it would not come as a surprise, it really could not prepare her to hear that voice, herself, twelve-year-old, and with those words. It was very heavy for her and we stopped a couple of times also, but her first reaction was “I am so proud of myself”. And you can’t want anything more than that. So that felt really good. Then her mom came on a different day to see the film with her boyfriend and that was really heavy too. She was so moved by Emilie’s strength to be in the film. I think she was surprised at the level she was so proud of and I think she felt a huge sorrow that she hadn’t been there to talk to any of the kids about it, that she put on that distance and closed up and that was good in a way too. That’s never too late to do, openness is not something you do in one conversation, it is something you will always work on. So I think she is very proud of the film too. It was a lot of support from them as a family. 

Alexander: Has there been some time between when you finished shooting to the release of the film?

Tone: There is really ethics in documentary film, it is so complex, every film has its own ethic and for this film,  I think we had to realize we were filmmakers but to be able to evaluate whether we should ask Emilie to be in the film or not, if she accepted should we still make the film about her or not, is she too vulnerable and all these questions we had a lot of help from the Children’s House Barnehus in Norway who are experts.

Alexander: yeah, an institution working with the children

Tone: And they helped us all the way along. First of all, they introduced us to Emilie, so we met Emilie through them, and the police interview was made at their place and that was one thing. And the other I guess was spending time and that they felt ready. And I think it is not a film where you can at one point decide “okay let's make the film” and it’ll be launched in two years or three years or whenever it’s done, this was the kind of film where we had to, you know, we did all the shooting, and all the shooting, we had 30 shooting days and we shot for about one hour each time and when we finished, the last scene is when they talk with their younger siblings about the past and after that we decided to put all the material in a box and then the whole family spend a year healing with the help of psychiatrists, and only after that one year we went back to them and we said, “you still want us to finish this film” and they really wanted that. And when we felt that was something they wanted, there was no pressure, like nothing, they just wanted the film to be out there that’s when we started to edit and then one year later the film was done and ready to go yet, and then we still waited another year to give them time from the finished project until it was launched, and they needed that time. Emilie needed that time and I think it was good for the film too. So, it’s a film as is in every film, you have to find the ethics needed for that film in particular and I guess time and having the help of experts was a big clue for our ethic plan.

Alexander: On one hand, Emilie is obviously very strong, I mean coming out with her story and wanting to help others, but she is obviously of course a very vulnerable person, was there an issue for you to balance that in the portrayal of her in the film?

Tone: Yeah, Absolutely, from the starting point we were really aware that it would be very important to show her as someone with a lot of hope, strength, potential, you know, all of these things. But when we started filming almost instantly she got this letter from the police saying that her perpetrator would be released from prison, she went straight into a court case, suddenly the welfare administration came and they put a lot of pressure on her and all these things together, not getting the restraining order, so she became very ill quite quickly while we were filming. So many things that were triggering her, she was afraid of going out, spending a lot of time inside and it was difficult, I felt at times, to find scenes that would show her strength. We were always looking out for that and I think one of my favorite scenes in the film is when she is comforting her baby sister and you see how well she is doing that and how important she is for someone else, and you can imagine no one did that for her when she was that age. So, it was like finding the small scenes and finding the small details but always looking out for hope because resistance, there was a lot for her everywhere.

Alexander : And you also started a campaign linked to this film so the film is part of a bigger project, could you tell us a little bit about that?

Tone: Yeah, that was really important for us to define an impact campaign around the film and to do that together with Emilie, and find something that was really organic to her experience and what she wanted. So even though the film follows her from 18 to 20, there are a lot of key people in her life that are not in the film, just because they were in her life before she turned 18. For instance, her teacher, but I went to see all these people to meet them, and her teacher said, ``you know, “I didn’t know what to do. I had a bad feeling, but I didn’t know how to act on it, I didn’t have the tools.” And with that as a starting point and with Emilie wanting to be a voice for other young people, we developed a method for digital teaching. It’s a teaching tool to teach adult professionals that work with children and young people about violence and sexual abuse, and we made this tool kit for teachers and then it became very successful, and we developed it further to kindergarten teachers, to dentists, and also the welfare administration has one of these toolkits. We did all of this together with Emilie, and she’s been working alongside us on this campaign and that’s been really great both for us, and for Emilie and useful hopefully for the people using the tool.

Alexander: So, Emilie is still engaged in creating awareness and working on this topic? 

Tone: Yeah, and it’s funny because in the film that’s what she says to the work counselor, who asks her “what do you wanna be?” [Emilie] “I wanna be someone for other young people who have experienced the same thing, I wanna make awareness around this” and the counselor is kind of like “well…” but she is actually doing that now. She’s hired by the impact campaign and working together with us and creating this digital tool so that’s been amazing.

Alexander: When Emilie is going to have this difficult conversation at the end of the film with her younger siblings, we are told that her plan is to start with kind of addressing the topic of consent, what are your thoughts on this topic and how younger people's understanding is of consent?

Tone: I think, at least in Norway, it’s a new trend, it’s a new direction that adults are starting to talk to young kids about consent. ‘It’s my body,’ ‘this is allowed,’ ‘this is not allowed,’ ‘do you have a bad secret?’ It’s a program that goes into kindergarten and into schools to teach children about consent. And I think that is super important. I know it’s very special for Emilie, as perpetrators often do, they are very manipulative, and for Emilie she thought this was something everybody did at home because that is what he had told her. But if you speak about it, your whole family will be ruined so that’s what she thought. She felt that it was wrong, and she felt it was something hurtful and not right but what he said was the opposite. So one day in her fifth grade, so that was the year she was twelve, they had sexual education in her class and her teacher said, “sex is really nice that goes on when two people…” and she said “ I got so upset when he talked about it and so dizzy and so sick because suddenly I understood everything he told me at home was a lie, suddenly I understood what we’re doing is not right” But the teacher never said it was illegal if it happened between an adult and a child and never brought up the idea of consent, so she spent several months trying to process the new information she had, and she said I wish he had said, and consent is a keyword here, and explained that because she would have known immediately what that was. I think for her the sexual education class was like a defining moment for her where she, for the first time understood, and her brain started to make a plan to get out of it and that took a couple of months. So, I think talking to children about consent is so important. 

Alexander: What was the most challenging part of making this film for you?

Tone: I guess the balance between making the film and making sure everyone we filmed was safe. That the film process was not harmful for them but at the same time making a film. If you make a weak film, that’s not good for anyone either. It goes a little bit hand in hand.

Alexander: sometimes people have to be a little bit at risk to make a stronger film perhaps 

Tone: Yeah, and I think she was willing to stretch really far, I guess it was a balance of thinking a lot about it like was that too much, was that not too much, was that right and feeling that responsibility of getting the film out in the right way, making this film and having a bigger project that can serve Emilie right so that the reason for her to participate becomes strong enough. You know all these you feel when you make a film about someone who is both strong but also vulnerable

Alexander: What is the most important, for you, that audiences take with them from this film?

Tone: I want to make something that can stay with the audience and give them a reason to see, and believe, and act, when they see a child and understand there's something strange here, or there's something going on that you can’t really put your finger on, that you take that extra step, that you ask the child, to be involved in the child, to help the child. That was the main reason when I started and it’s still a main reason now, the most important thing to take out from the film. But I am learning how it is for a young person to live with trauma from childhood and how difficult that can be. I hope the film can make the world a little more empathetic and generous towards how we interact with people who are struggling. And for Emilie, I think it is, if this film can help someone to tell their secret and not keep it as a secret anymore whether you are young, a child, or even an adult. For most people, it takes seventeen years before they are ready to talk about their abuse and if this film can help people come forward with their secret, and seek help a little bit earlier, that’s an important take out of the film.

Bring ALL THAT I AM to your school + community!