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[Note: In the wake of the Hot Docs festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select entries that elected to premiere digitally.]
Emilie Andrea Franklin Dahl, the young woman at the center of Tone Grottjord-Glenne’s intimate and sensitive documentary All That I Am, took the extraordinary step of reporting her sexual abuse when she was only 12. Years later, she’s determined to help others speak up; as she says at a particularly hopeful point in the doc, “I look at myself as a beacon.” But when the filmmaker first finds her, at 18 and newly returned to her family after five years in Norway’s foster system, she’s still dealing with her trauma, and at the same time contending with an oppressive silence: Her mother doesn’t want Emilie’s young half-siblings to know why she was away.
Helmer Grottjord-Glenne (executive producer of Gunda) filmed her subject for 28 days over a two-year period, and the elliptical account she’s crafted leaves its time shifts undefined, along with several of the onscreen relationships. Those gaps can be frustrating, but if at moments this feels like a story partly told, it also has a gripping vérité power, keenly attuned to Emilie’s anxieties, frustrations and aspirations, her plight all the more agonizing for its understatement.
Emilie’s mother, Hanne, has invited her back home, but with the caveat that the “family would fall apart” if her half-brother and half-sister knew the brutal facts. (They’re tweens who weren’t yet born when their father started molesting Emilie.) Even the sister she grew up with, now a self-assured 16-year-old, didn’t understand for years what had happened. The increasingly resolute Emilie takes the lead, certain that sharing her story with her siblings is the only way to prevent the family from falling apart.
Intimately observed but never intrusive, with astute camerawork by Egil Haskjold-Larsen, All That I Am reveals the aching distances within the newly reconstituted household. Communication is often strained or lacking, Emilie’s watchful silences loaded with hope and disappointment. She’s slightly wary with her mother, unreservedly maternal with her siblings (her brother is unseen, her half-sister seen only in partial, fleeting glimpses). With Aiko, an exceptionally serene and fluffy cat, Emilie enjoys her most constant, and certainly least complicated, bond in the house.
Also a comfort is an electronic emergency alarm — to contact the police in case her abuser, released from prison, shows up. Hanne tries to reassure her daughter that their paths will never again cross, but Emilie isn’t convinced. “It feels,” she says, “like his life will be easier than mine.”
Her stepfather never appears onscreen, and his name is never spoken. Midway through the doc, which otherwise makes a point of occupying Emilie’s present tense rather than unraveling her past, the filmmaker discloses the awful details of her protagonist’s ordeal, through a brief, heart-rending audio recording. One of the voices belongs to a female police officer; the other speaker is Emily, age 12. “An assault, I think,” she says before describing the abuse she’s endured.
Emilie’s nerves and vulnerability are as apparent as her inner strength. At a civil court hearing to decide her compensation for the crime, the camera stays close to her, capturing the rising tide of emotion and the fortitude it takes to hold it back. Grottjord-Glenne is especially attentive to the moments when Emilie shuts down — notably when her mother urges her to be “more social” and during meetings with employment counselors who, in a similar vein, map out a busy timeline of deadlines and goalposts for finding a job and being back in the thick of things. (According to the director, the film proved revelatory for some employees of social welfare agencies: They recognized that trying to reintegrate their clients into society as quickly as possible could instead “hamper their recovery.”)
Even so, to American eyes, the public-private system that gathers around Emilie to support her is striking for its compassion and roundedness, especially if this is standard care — a counselor even takes the aspiring writer to meet with a publisher. Norwegian viewers might more readily understand where Emilie spent those five years away from her family, but the answer is spelled out only in press notes, not in the film. She travels to visit a friend who seems to be a fellow survivor of abuse, farther along in her recovery — whether they lived together in a group home or knew each other from therapy programs is unclear. So too is Emilie’s relationship with the young man she moves in with.
But their bright, sparsely furnished apartment undeniably signals a fresh start for Emilie, and it’s there, on her new turf, that she and her tearful mother have a heart-to-heart, however tentative and unsatisfying it might be. The guilt over marrying a “monster,” as she calls him, and being blind to his transgressions and her child’s suffering must be overwhelming; no wonder her initial preference for silence on the matter.
The film builds, in its quiet way, toward a very specific encounter that, understandably, we don’t get to see. But we can imagine its cathartic effect for the family and for a remarkable young woman who stepped out of the shadows of shame. Recalling her early, indirect attempts to share her terrible secret with her classmates, she says, “You feel older than you should feel.” She was robbed of her childhood, but she’s also an old soul in the best sense, wise and resilient and moving forward, her exemplary story a beacon indeed in this unforced portrait.
Venue: Hot Docs (International Spectrum)
Production companies: Sant & Usant, Final Cut for Real
Screenwriter-director: Tone Grottjord-Glenne
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen
Director of photography: Egil Haskjold-Larsen
Editor: Cathrine Ambus
Composer: Ola Flottum
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