Something peculiar is going on in Sweden, a strange phenomenon affecting children that has defied explanation by doctors and psychiatrists. In recent years hundreds of kids around the Scandinavian country have slipped into a mysterious, coma-like state lasting many months or more—transformed from bright, active youngsters into limp creatures in need of round-the-clock care. Identifying the cause has proven elusive.
“The thing we found out is that if you talk to eight experts, you get 10 opinions,” notes filmmaker John Haptas. “There really aren’t good answers.”
The Netflix documentary Life Overtakes Me, directed by the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, explores this baffling scenario. It’s one of 10 short docs shortlisted for Academy Awards consideration.
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The affected children all come from refugee families that have fled to Sweden after experiencing persecution of some kind. Some of the families belong to ethnic minority groups victimized in their countries of origin.
“There’s Uighurs, there’s Roma, Yazidis. There’s people from these geographic areas,” Haptas explains. “That’s maybe a clue.”
Others are from Balkan countries or former Soviet republics south of Russia. In the case of Daria, a seven-year-old girl in the film, her father went on the run after government agents in an unspecified country (the filmmakers leave out such details to protect their subjects’ anonymity) threatened him over his internet company.
Karen, meanwhile, a 12-year-old boy seen in Life Overtakes Me, was nearly killed in an ambush that targeted his father. He initially adjusted well after resettlement in Sweden, but then, like Daria, he too fell into a catatonic state and now must be nourished through a feeding tube threaded down his nose. The condition has come to be known as Resignation Syndrome.
“They literally withdraw from the world as if they’re dead,” Samuelson tells Deadline. Making the film, she says, became “a very important way to be showing and thinking about the crisis these kids are in, the physical and mental crisis that they’re in emotionally when they are faced with this horrifying trauma.”
There’s another important piece to the medical puzzle. The families of children with Resignation Syndrome share something else in common—a constant anxiety driven by the uncertainty of whether they will be allowed to stay in Sweden.
“Sweden, when you apply for asylum, it takes a long time for your case to be worked through. So some of these families have been in Sweden a year, a year and a half. They’re in limbo,” Samuelson notes. “While they’re there, Sweden’s taking care of them—they’re housed, they have medical care. Their children are going to school. They have a life. But then when their visa is denied and they’re told they have to go back to their home country, the fact that they actually had a good life in Sweden is in striking contrast to what they would be going back to.”
One doctor in Life Overtakes Me describes the psychological reality this way: “Your child is laying here like Snow White because everything is so terrible around her that this is a way of protection. She is just waiting for the situation to be better.”
The reference to Snow White is apt, because there is a fairytale-like quality to the documentary, evoking ancient tales of children menaced by dark, mysterious forces.
“There was something so insane about what we were seeing. It did feel otherworldly and mythological in this very fundamental and strange way,” Samuelson comments. “So the idea of referencing a fairytale and referencing Snow White really worked. Even later in the film, the mother [of one unconscious girl] is combing her hair and says, ‘You’re just like Rapunzel.’ That’s really something that we felt was just floating there.”
Resignation Syndrome is most prevalent in Sweden, but has been witnessed elsewhere.
“There are instances reported in Australian [refugee] detention centers, which are pretty awful places,” Haptas states. “We’ve seen articles now where they specifically call what they’re seeing in Lesbos [in Greek refugee camps], in some cases, Resignation Syndrome.”
The filmmakers settled on the title for their short after a period of research and reflection.
“We spend a lot of time on our titles. It’s important, we think,” Samuelson affirms. “In this particular case, we sat down with some poetry books…You are looking for topics that have to do with poems about people suffering, poems about people seeking comfort. In an Anne Sexton poem I came across the word ‘overtakes.’ Of course, none of the other words in our title were there, but that word seemed to capture something special. ‘Overtakes.’ [I] started playing with that word, and Life Overtakes Me emerged. That became our title from the very early on days.”
Life Overtakes Me is now streaming on Netflix, making it available to audiences around the world, including Sweden where it could potentially impact the politics that swirl around refugee matters.
“It would mean a lot to families in our film, for families in general in that situation and hopefully to refugees facing trauma in other places to have the issue foregrounded,” Haptas states. “In Sweden it may make a real concrete difference, as the film gets out, to how the government handles immigration policy—particularly because, like a lot of countries, Sweden is facing a resurgence of the right wing and the growth of anti-immigration sentiment.”
Making the Oscar shortlist has left Haptas and Samuelson with a feeling of gratitude.
“This whole experience is really totally new to us. I mean, we started this film financing it by renting our house out and going off to Sweden,” Haptas tells Deadline. “Then everything sort of snowballed. So I have to say that right now, we feel like there’s pixie dust on us and we’re pretty excited.”
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