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Norway’s tale of child abuse is relevant here

| February 10, 2012 at 08:19 am

North American audiences connect story with their countries’ own scandals

King of Devil’s Island Rating 4

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Kristoffer Joner, Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen

Playing in Norwegian with English subtitles at AMC cinema and with French subtitles at Beaubien cinema

Parent’s guide: Cruelty, violence and (unshown) sexual abuse of boysNorway, 1915. At a reformatory for juvenile delinquents on Bastøy Island, in a fjord south of Oslo, the stern governor lays down the law to the new boy fresh off the boat, a burly 17-year-old sailor named Erling, who has committed a murder. “Our goal, and your goal, is to find an honourable, useful, Christian boy in here,” the governor tells the teenager, tapping his chest, “to shape him and to polish him. And if we don’t find him, you’ll stay here – is that understood?”

The boy understands, and says so, but already his mind is on escape. Already he senses that at such a brutal institution – where boys are flogged, made to stand overnight on a stool, forced to hew and haul lumber in sub-zero weather, ordered to carry boulders around as punishment, and, secretly, forced to satisfy the sexual urges of the reformatory’s corrupt warden – escape is the only sane thing to wish for.

Such a place really existed, and the riot that eventually occurred as a protest against the abuse is the stuff of Norwegian history. It’s wrung for all its dramatic potential in this remarkable movie by British-trained director Marius Holst, who shot under harsh winter conditions in coastal Estonia with a mostly amateur cast of teenage boys, many of them drawn from remote communities and out of Norway’s youth-protection system.

It was a difficult shoot. On set, life imitated art.

“We all lived in the same locations that we shot in, and every second day I was called in because there was trouble among the boys,” Holst, 45, recalled in an interview last week from London. “I had to meet with them and solve problems. My job as director was not to be a dictator like the governor; it was to be more of a father figure. The boys had to learn to trust me, so I didn’t want to scare them – that never leads to good work.

“But, of course, there were small uprisings and we had to put them down,” said Holst, whose previous film, the Kosovo refugee story Blodsbånd (Mirush) in 2007, was a gritty youth drama, too. “These were teenage boys, they were out in the cold, they’re not professionals, so at times it was tough. We had a couple of hundred boys on the big days and never fewer than 10 on the others; if they hadn’t studied and didn’t know what to do, it was pretty hard.”

Structured like a classic prison-break drama, King of Devil’s Island distinguishes itself by the fluid artistry of its camerawork, a Scandinavian economy of dialogue, and the naturalistic performances of the cast led by veteran Swedish film star Stellan Skarsgård, a familiar face for English-speaking audiences through movies as diverse as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Good Will Hunting and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“I go between doing the big Hollywood films that have $100-million (budgets) and the small independent films that don’t have any money at all and that need more help,” Skarsgård, 60, said last week from the Dublin Film Festival, where he was receiving a lifetime achievement award. In King of Devil’s Island, Skarsgård delivers his lines in Swedish, just as he has always done in the half-dozen Norwegian pictures he has made.

“The Norwegians understand Swedish so well, it’s no problem to them. They accept me as a sort of honorary Norwegian – there’s not much difference,” said Skarsgård, who has also starred in several movies by the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, including Melancholia, Dogville and Breaking the Waves, as well as the acclaimed mid-1990s TV miniseries The Kingdom.

Skarsgård’s character, the reformatory’s governor, is a conflicted man. Though his ways are cruel, they are not unusual for their day. For the governor, the end goal of breaking the boys’ will and making them bend to his own thoroughly justifies the means he uses to get there, starting with assigning each new boy to a section and giving him a number that will take the place of his name. Erling, for example, becomes C-19.

“By the standards of his day, my character was extremely soft and liberal – his ambition was to run a good place for the boys,” Skarsgård said. “But the society of that time was not what it is today, and the authorities’ views on punishment and how children should be treated is very different from today. The kids had a horrible time there. The governor is actually a coward – he’s in charge of the island, but can’t admit what is happening around him.”

The boys’ story revolves around Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and his section leader, a soft-spoken blond named Olav (newcomer Trond Nilssen) – officially, C-1 – who is serving the end of a long term for the “crime” of stealing money from a church collection box. With a third boy, they plot their escape, but not before taking revenge on the sadistic warden, Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), who has secretly been abusing a defenceless boy in the prison laundry room.

If it sounds sordid, it is, but the realism is never overwhelming. The sexual abuse is never shown; in fact, as was the custom of the time, it’s not even talked about, and when the subject is finally raised it’s never described in detail.

The violence toward the children – and sometimes between them – is shown, but it’s never gratuitous; it simply serves to advance the story. It’s good drama in which actions speak louder than words.

It’s also a universal tale that’s relevant to our own time and history. Premiered over a year ago in Norway (where it won the country’s award for best picture), shown in Montreal last summer at the Fantasia film festival and released in the U.S. in November, the movie resonates with North American audiences used to their countries’ own child-abuse scandals: Penn State, the Boston Catholic Church, Bishop’s and Notre-Dame colleges, to name a few.

“To me,” said Skarsgård, King of Devil’s Island “is about power and power structures and how they corrupt. It’s the power these people are given over other people that they shouldn’t have. It’s unhealthy, but if you have it, it can be hard to resist.”

Added Holst, who’s now working on a script about the right-wing terrorist attacks that catapulted Norway into the world news last summer: “Closed institutions of any kind bring out the dark side in humanity, be it the oppressed or the oppressor. That theme still resonates today.”

Times change, however – sometimes for the better.

The prison on Bastøy Island has long ceased to be a reformatory for boys. These days, it’s a model “ecological” penitentiary, a minimum-security institution for the rehabilitation of adults serving long sentences for drug-trafficking, manslaughter and other crimes. The inmates cultivate the land, live in wooden cottages, have keys to their room, and manage the facility with the staff, who are all unarmed.

A documentary film has been made about the place as it exists today. It’s called, simply, Bastøy. Written and directed by Michel Kapteijns, it was released, just like Holst’s feature, in 2010. There’s a trailer at bastoythemovie.com. Watch it and then remember how things used to be in their country – and in some ways, around the world, still are – for young people shut away or put totally under adults’ charge:

Not only unforgiving, but unforgivable.

jheinrich@montrealgazette.com

Source: The Gazette

 

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