Speaking the unspeakable

Christine Wiederkehr on starting urgent conversations with 7 Fois

by Jennie Kermode

7 Fois
7 Fois

7 Fois. Seven times. That’s how often, according to research, an abused child has to ask for help before anyone intervenes. How does it happen that people turn away, or fail to pay attention, so often? Christine Wiederkehr’s intense 16 minute film tells the story of one boy, Elio (Vidal Arzoni), who is persuaded to share his secrets with a young woman (Luna Wedler) whom he meets whilst waiting for his tutor – but will she take him seriously?

The film begins when Elio is at home, chasing a wasp around the kitchen, waiting for his mother to return from her night shift. I asked Christine why she chose to start there and to take her time establishing the characters before the main arc of the story gets going.

“I thought the context is quite important, because abuse is always happening in a power relationship,” she says. “And I thought it's a important to show that this boy has a mother who loves him a lot, actually, who tries to do her best – but anyway, this happens to him. It's not that he's just alone and having nobody in his life, but that he feels a bit lonely sometimes because his mother is working a lot and maybe there is no dad. So I thought it was important to show the context.”

He's standing on a chair when we first see him. He seems quite precariously balanced. She explains that, whilst this might make viewers worry for him, it also tells us something positive.

“I want to have someone who's really feeling good in his body. And also the boy having a loving mom, having a physical relationship with his mom, a good relationship. Not like a boy where you can see he's feeling ill and doesn’t feel good about himself. No. I want to have a happy, nice, healthy boy.”

When he catches the wasp in a jar, his mother tells him not to torture it. Is he being cruel in that scene? it seems that he might not be aware of his actions in that way.

“Yes, we are not sure. He's not sure. He's probably bored. He's alone. He doesn't know what to do.”

Arzoni is incredibly good in the role.

“It was a casting agent who helped me to find him because they were doing a casting for another film,” she says. “They were casting a lot of boys. I sent her the script and then she recommended me some boys and I saw a video of him. He was the only boy that I liked. I met him and were talking about life, and I thought, ‘This is a very intelligent boy and a very sensitive boy,’ and that's why I chose him.”

Keeping a young actor safe and free from stress is difficult when telling a story like this, and it was a priority for her from the outset.

“I was really in close contact with his parents, too, and were very open talking about the subject and what does it mean? And I think the boy, he understood this very well and he wanted to do it. He wrote me a letter saying me that he wants to play this role because he thinks it's important to talk about it, to prevent other children going through that.”

The woman he meets as the story progresses is still very young herself, I note, and we get the impression that she could have got into her current situation in a similar way.

“You're 20, you're 22, you’re an adult, but at the same time, you're still a child also,” she agrees, and adds something that UK viewers may miss: that there is an additional layer of vulnerability there because, as a slight accent reveals, French is not the woman’s mother tongue. Like Elio, she’s an immigrant who might have been looking for help with her language skills.

We talk about the way the conversation between the two develops, and how Elio abruptly gets up and moves to the other side of the room when she starts talking about sex. It suggests to me that he’s feeling threatened.

“Yes, because the way she is talking about it is not really friendly. I mean, she's very curious. She wants some news, and he doesn't feel really good. Nobody likes when you have these weak places in yourself where you feel not sure about yourself. I think nobody feels comfortable when someone is trying to hit directly in your soft spots.”

We discuss the importance of making sure that Elio is somebody the audience can relate to and respect.

“It's about his complex feelings. I think this is what these stories make so complex, and that was one of the reasons why they're so difficult to talk about,” she says. “You have these very good feelings with someone and at the same time he's doing something with you that is not really good for you and you don't know it. You don't realise what's happening, or even if you realise, you don't know how to protect yourself. This contradiction was very important for me.

“For him, it’s love. Kids can fall in love. I remember I was in love at nine, ten or eleven years old. That's your right, to have these feelings.”

The final shot of the film, where we zoom out and see Elio standing alone in a window, is about emphasising his isolation, she says.

“One of the bad things about sexual abuse is it puts you in a situation of isolation because you can't share what you go through, because nobody understands you. You can't share your feelings or you feel ashamed and it makes you feel very lonely. I was looking for pictures to express this loneliness and being in connection with the world, but not being really connected. Because he's behind the window. This is where he is, and this is where the outer world is. He’s here but not here at the same time.”

Casting the person who is abusing Elio also required a lot of careful thought. She wanted to avoid stereotypes and make people realise that it’s not always obvious who will do something like that.

“There are a lot of people just abusing kids just for fun, just with bad intentions. But there are also the ones that really like to speak to and spend time with children, and to have this proximity, and they stayed boys too, in a way, in their minds. I was looking for someone who had this boyish quality. Elio is really in love with him. He's doing fun stuff with him.

“I was looking for someone who's physically close to the boy, also in his physicality, even though he's over 40, and this was important. And then I was also looking for someone who could be, you know, my best friend, my brother, someone that makes everybody think ‘Oh, this is really a nice guy.’ He doesn't seem to be an abuser at all.”

It’s based on a true story, she says, which left the person in Elio’s position wondering, for years, why he wasn’t believed. I venture that, in the film, acknowledging the truth would be inconvenient for the young woman, so she just switches off that possibility in her mind.

But we seem to maybe get the impression in the film as well, that the young woman just. She doesn't want to believe it because it's inconvenient for her to believe it. So she just stops. She just turns off that possibility in her mind.

“Yes. I think that's a very normal reaction. And that's why, even if children talk about, we are not listening, because we think ‘No, it can't be my brother. It's not possible. It can't be my cousin. It can't be – no, no. Because he's such a nice guy, or such a nice grandfather, or such a nice uncle or whatever.”

7 Fois recent won Best International Short Film at the Dublin International Film Festival.

“Now I hope it's going on to other festivals,” she says. “For me, it's very important. I wanted to make a film that people, after they saw it, they start to talk about what they went through, or maybe what they think they went through, or that there is more empathy to be able to share the stories we lived. Because I think everybody's got something. Even if it was not our story, it was the story of our sister, of our grandmother, or our father. And it concerns us, even if we don't know that this happened. It affects how we grew up or how we live or how our friendships develop.”

She’s currently working on a film written by a British screenwriter, she reveals, as well as writing for a series in Switzerland and working on some other scripts – but she intends to return to this subject in the future.

“I will come back to this because I spent a long time on it. I had a feature film, it was almost financed, and then Corona came and everything shut down. I had been working for over ten years on this script, and I was really in a crisis. That's one of the reasons I made this short film. I needed at least one output with this subject because I was thinking a lot about this. So I think I’ll go back because, yes, it's important.”

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