Fairy tales are often dark stories about tragic family relationships painted in the magical light of hope and happily-ever-after. The three refugee children featured in Life Overtakes Me have fallen into an indefinite Snow White-like sleep, only rather than a wicked step-mother, these children sleep to avoid the tragedies and traumas their families have endured.
Amidst an opening scene of serene snow and zen music, the calm voice of a psychoanalyst breaks the spell, “Your child is laying here like Snow White because everything is so terrible around her.” The coma-like sleep that protects her from the outside worlds is more akin to the Brother’s Grimm telling of the fairytale than the Disney version.
Life Overtakes Me is a difficult film to watch, not because it isn’t well done but because directors Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas have provided you with a window into the lives of these families whose suffering is more than one should bear.
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The children, who have witnessed horrors most viewers can’t even begin to imagine, have been diagnosed with Resignation Syndrome, a physiological condition brought on by extreme trauma that causes the children to become increasingly unresponsive until they fall into a deep sleep; not quite a coma but sleep so deep the victims require tube feeding and 24/7 vigilant care. “This is a way of protection. She is just waiting for the situation to be better,” the doctor reassures us.
But we aren’t reassured, we’re horrified. There are no separate interviews shot in sterile rooms to take us away from the pain; we watch the daily routine of these families with eyes wide open and listen to voiceovers of the parents who’ve lost their children to this sleep.
The families are refugees from the Balkans or former U.S.S.R., now facing deportation from Sweden. Over the past decade, concurrent with the tightening of Sweden’s asylum restrictions, hundreds of children have taken to this deep sleep as a physiological avoidance of the pain they’ve endured and perhaps, fear encountering again with the oncoming deportation.
The documentary is not investigative; it is a passive lens into three tragic family stories. The cameras follow the families as they care for children who have no desire to be a part of our world any longer. There is a cinematic quality to the film that feels like the odd hybrid of an intimate home video and a guided meditation.
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Without being told how to feel, we, as the viewers, are struck with a knot in our throat and an emotion nagging at our gut that we can’t place: hurt that our world has become too cruel for children to endure; anger that these families have been torn from the homeland and are now threatened with deportation from Sweden; guilt that we are watching these real-life horrors from the comfort of our living room with our children playing innocently in the background?
We grapple with the emotion, grateful that the Netflix documentary is only 40 minutes long, but feeling compelled to learn more, do more.
The directors, Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas, who have been nominated for and won several awards for this film and other documentaries, tell the story with a calm grace that feels both uncharacteristic compared to the frustration rising in the viewer and also oddly appropriate — as if we are whispering over the sleeping child, waiting for them to wake up.
The children look like they’re taking naps. We see pictures of them healthy and active, and then exposed to the violent past they’ve only recently escaped. 7-year old Dasha’s mother was raped and 12-year old Karen witnessed a friend’s murder. As we watch, 10-year old Leyla’s sister begins to fall under the spell of Resignation Syndrome.
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The illness is still a mystery. Only children in Sweden seem to be afflicted, and them only asylum seekers from a handful of eastern European countries, not Africa or Asia.
Some children are afflicted almost immediately after traumatic events and the subsequent threat from Swedish migration officials that they cannot stay in the country and others do not begin to withdraw for years later. The film gives us heartbreaking details on the families and the hardships they endure, but we always stay on the surface of the political issues that cause them to seek asylum and why Sweden is tightening their asylum laws.
Is this intentional on the part of the directors, to keep us in an emotional state rather than a solution-oriented frame of mind? Or is it a missed opportunity to give the viewer the insight to support these families rather than to merely pity them?
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While Life Overtakes Me follows the lives of three families, we learn that there are hundreds of cases of Resignation Syndrome in Sweden. The psychosomatic illness has been prevalent since the 1990s and for years the children were thought to have been faking or the parents to have deliberately poisoned their children for shows of sympathy. Now, the illness is simply dubbed “Sweden’s mystery illness” and the film leads us to deduce that there is no cure or treatment.
It is an illness that must play out until the child awakes on their own. And some do recover as suddenly and mysteriously as they began their descent into hibernation. However, when they awake, there is no prince waiting with promises of happily ever after. Only the same situation they avoided to begin with. And I’m left wondering if they will choose sleep again and if so, will they ever want to wake?
Life Overtakes Me ends as calmly as it began. There’s no call to action, merely an awareness that we didn’t have before. We carry the knowledge of the condition and the families it affects without a real sense of what we are supposed to do with this information. The film is beautifully crafted to spark emotion, but it leaves us feeling helpless as we turn off the screen and check on our children, grateful that they will wake in the morning.
Where to Watch: Netflix
By Simone Adams
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