In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s lively, singing princess falls into a perpetual slumber due to an external trauma: the poisoned apple given to her by the jealous, hag-like Queen. Only the love of a handsome prince saves her from this condition, thereby granting her the happily-ever-after she deserves. Hers is a classic story about an innocent individual being victimized by oppressive forces, and then triumphing over adversity thanks to the compassion and kindness of the noble-hearted.
And as Life Overtakes Me illustrates, it’s a tale that’s now playing out in reality—in deeply unsettling fashion—throughout Sweden.
Produced, directed and edited by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, Netflix’s new documentary short (premiering June 14) runs only 40 minutes, but they may be the most unnerving 40 minutes of your year. That’s because Life Overtakes Me’s subjects are refugee children who, after relocating with their families to Sweden, have fallen into a coma-like state, and refuse to wake up. They look like they’re sleeping, their vital signs are relatively normal (and frequently responsive to corporeal stimuli), and they continue to physically mature, aided by their parents’ ability to feed them, often via enormous syringes. But they’re not taking naps; instead, they’re suffering from Resignation Syndrome.
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing about this ailment, since it’s relatively rare and has only become common in Sweden over the past few years. Virtually all of the afflicted are young refugee kids, often from certain ethnic minorities, who’ve sought asylum from their native Balkans and former Soviet republics on the southern border of Russia. The reason these groups are particularly susceptible to Resignation Syndrome is currently unknown, as are the chances that it could manifest itself elsewhere (a coda indicates that cases have now been found in refugee detention centers in Australia). In most regards, it’s a medical mystery—except, that is, for its apparent cause.
Through portraits of three stricken children, Life Overtakes Me reveals that Resignation Syndrome is ostensibly the byproduct of intense, prolonged trauma caused by children’s experiences in their homelands and, more immediate still, by their uncertain refugee circumstances. In all three instances, these kids faced unimaginable nightmares during their early adolescence, and then once in Sweden—a presumed safe haven—they were forced to grapple with the possibility that their asylum petitions would be rejected, and that they’d have to return to the horrors they had fled. The prospect of being sent back to hell, where they and their loved ones were in mortal peril, seems to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Like a computer that crashes due to an internal malfunction, these kids have simply shut down.
Resignation Syndrome is a defense mechanism for unbearable stress, and thus an example of the unexpected ramifications of refugeedom, which upends lives and leaves the less fortunate in ambiguous, nerve-wracking limbo. Life Overtakes Me’s political plea isn’t hard to discern—especially with 200 new Swedish cases reported over the last three years. For the most part, though, it sets aside overt commentary for an up-close-and-personal view of these unfortunate souls, beginning with Dasha, a 7-year-old girl who we’re first introduced to after 5 months of unresponsiveness. Lying in bed with her palms pressed together under her face, she resembles your average kid enjoying an afternoon nap, save for the tube in her nose (held in place against her cheek with tape)—and, shortly thereafter, by footage of her being carried into her wheelchair for outdoor walks, and cradled by her father as he brushes her teeth.
Subsequent snapshots reveal similar situations for 10-year-old Leyla and 12-year-old Karen, both of whom were smart, active kids—photos show them with athletic medals, and alongside siblings—until they cracked under mounting pressure. The fear of deportation appears to have been the root cause of their suspended animation. However, they also seem to have suffered the trickle-down effects of the persecution they sustained in their home countries: Dasha’s mother was raped as a means of threatening her husband, who ran an internet service disliked by the powers-that-be; and Karen himself witnessed the murder of a family friend, and had to literally run for his life to escape an identical fate.
In intimate footage of these kids being cleaned, fed and examined by doctors (who put cold items on their stomachs to see if it will change their blood pressure), Haptas and Samuelson convey the enormity of the trauma that these kids must have endured. Meanwhile, Life Overtakes Me embellishes its central material with slowly-creeping shots along wintry forest skylines, icy rivers, and tree-lined roads. During those panoramic interludes, a collection of unseen psychologists and journalists explain the specifics of Resignation Syndrome, as well as the response to it in Sweden, where far-right politicians and activists initially suggested that the kids were faking their condition. Not so, says reporter Gellert Tamas: “We are talking about children who are really sick in a serious way.”
The fact that Dasha, Leyla and Karen haven’t been physically changed by Resignation Syndrome—they’re not bloated; their limbs remain pliable; their skin and complexion appear healthy—only amplifies the disquieting nature of this phenomenon. The result is the impression that Sweden is being wracked by some sort of supernatural plague straight out of a Grimms fable. That becomes even more true toward the end of Life Overtakes Me, when, 11 months into Leyla’s ongoing ordeal, her older sister starts to fall under Resignation Syndrome’s spell; the image of this girl propped up in bed, her eyelids intensely droopy, followed by a cutaway to the sight of the family’s two wheelchairs, underscores the snowball effect manifesting itself in homes already burdened by crises.
Crafted with astute juxtapositions and a soundtrack of ominous rumblings, Life Overtakes Me isn’t devoid of hope; Dasha eventually awakens, courtesy of the positive atmosphere created by her parents in the wake of their successful asylum application. Nonetheless, it proves a haunting case study of the consequences of displacement, violence, fear and instability with which refugees constantly contend, and which in many parts of the world only seem to be growing.