Refugee Trauma: 'Life Overtakes Me' Documents Kids in Comas
John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary short Life Overtakes Me, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee. Set in Sweden, the film offers an inside look at refugee families caring for children experiencing resignation syndrome, a trauma-related condition inciting a coma-like state lasting months or years. Interviewed together, the married filmmakers discussed their creative choices and production strategies.
DOCUMENTARY: As a production crew of two, how did you structure your roles?
KRISTINE SAMUELSON: John shot the film. I did the sound. We boomed everything, so we were really not relying on the camera mic. We had the camera mic as backup. We really only used lavs for the interviews, and a boom mic for everything else. So we weren’t putting the mic in their faces. I was also doing some sideline producing during the shoot so we could keep the ball rolling.
JOHN HAPTAS: We needed a really small footprint, so we used a very small camera, a Sony fs5. It shoots long-GOP, rather than intra-frame footage. We didn't have a lot of movement, so we thought that would work fine. We had a small outboard monitor mounted on the camera for assisting with focus because we were shooting with no lights. We were shooting it at f2 just about the whole time, which means that focus was really a challenge. But we didn’t have to worry about lights and other people and more equipment in the room.
KS: Being a crew of two was a real advantage in this project, because the [apartment] spaces we were working in were quite small. What was very important was we had the time, open-ended time to be with the families, to get to know them well and even go some days when we thought we'd be shooting and it just wasn’t a good day. If one of the parents was really stressed out, we would just be able to leave. It was great for us to really just be present in their lives.
JH: We decided early on that we were going to use wide lenses. We used a Canon 16-35. We used a Sigma 24-70 almost the whole way and shot at f2 and stayed wide. There are very few inserts or close shots in the film. We decided to really strip away cinematic devices as best we could because the goal was to immerse the viewer in the world, so we thought a good way to do that was not only to shoot wide and stay out of the way, but also not to cut. We have long takes. And we thought that would help put the viewer in the room with the families. And the other thing we did is, we didn’t want to tell the viewer how to react, so we have no music in the whole film.
D: The film intercuts refugee stories with long, slow drone shots of Swedish landscapes, which bound the narrative together in interesting ways. How did you arrive at this creative decision?
KS: We had been referred to a Swedish cinematographer by a friend of ours who knew him. We met him for coffee. We became friends. He gave us a link to some of the material and it was just exactly what you see in the film. We really love the way he approaches drone cinematography, shooting much lower, and some shots are shot sideways in interesting ways. Once we saw what he was doing, we realized it would be a wonderful break for the audience, to get them out of the [refugee] houses and get them into Sweden as Sweden. This largely frozen landscape…there's a way the climate and the shots come together to help the audience emotionally both take a breather but also reflect on what the people have been saying during the action shots.
JH: We thought we'd use them in a similar way as both interstitial material and in the course of some of the stories, which is that they [landscape shots] can be interesting, they can be moody, but they're less demanding and don't take away from a viewer's ability to really hear the words that are under them. So we would have an expert or two under the interstitial shots tell us something about what was going on. And then we also used them in places where we wanted people to hear the words. We thought that would heighten the emotional impact of what they were saying.
KS: We didn't want to make the film a medical documentary, but we did want to have several moments where you hear of a few key things that give you information about this illness. We decided we would not film these experts on camera. It would be audio only; we knew if we shot the talking heads, it would just be irresistible to use. So we had these drone shots we could use that we could provide voiceover, and we think that turned out very well because it provides opportunity to really empower the parents as the only on-camera talking heads.
D: Your subjects are all trauma survivors. How did this inform your directorial approach?
JH: We made a deal with them from the very beginning: We're not going to say where they're from. We're not going to use any indicators in terms of visuals where they are in Sweden. That was the deal. When you do documentary filmmaking, you're asking people to trust you. We felt the responsibility of that. It really brought home the responsibilities of making a documentary to us because we were dealing with people who have been traumatized and felt very vulnerable.
KS: One of the hardest parts was to film their stories of trauma for the camera. The first families are on camera telling what happened to them and the third family, a doctor in voiceover, is telling us what happened to the mother. And so we had to get to a position where they felt ready to tell us that really painful series of stories or events that triggered all of this, fleeing their homeland. That was often one of the latter things; we did that after we’d been filming for many, many days. Those days were very hard for all of us.
JH: A lot of times when people, like refugees, like children, experience trauma or stress, the consequences are not always visible. This [resignation syndrome] is something that's visually apparent and therefore we thought it might be a really good way in microcosm to talk about the trauma of being a refugee and particularly the impacts on children.
KS: It's so easy to categorize refugees as "other" people who aren't like us. People who go into a box, like a silo, that we don't have to think of as regular people. And I think that with this film, we made every effort to present these people as who they are: families who care a lot about each other, who are trying to get their child better, who have been through hell and really would like to make a life and a new beginning.
JH: We want viewers to generalize about what refugee families experience all over the world, including at our own border.
Life Overtakes Me screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 2:45 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.
Suz Curtis is a Los-Angeles based screenwriter of documentary and narrative films. She received her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA and has written for Documentary magazine since 2014. @allthingssuz