It is always a great pleasure to see a film by Kim Longinotto. Renowned for her human portraits of characters, often women fighting oppression or injustice, Longinotto’s films are loaded with human drama, compassion and humour told in an observational style that leaves the floor to the characters and allows time for the stories to unfold.
This time, Longinotto has surprisingly shot a film in her own country. “Hold Me Tight-Let me Go” is about the Mulberry Bush Boarding School for children who have suffered severe emotional traumas. The teachers (108 for 40 children) help the children to regain self-confidence and self-respect and train them to be able to control their often violent behaviour and reactions.
The film does not introduce us to the working method of the teachers at the school, but it soon becomes clear that physical contact and dialogue with the children are a means for helping them to understand and overcome their rage, fear and-bad behaviour. Fights between the children and children spitting at and kicking teachers are everyday occurrences for the staff who react calmly, always trying to make the child verbalise his or her feelings. The children are never punished.
Sometimes the teachers need to physically restrain a child to prevent him from hurting others, locking his arms and talking to him, and more often than not, a crisis like this ends with the child and teacher hugging. Anger and violence are eventually replaced by moments of comfort.
As the title of the film suggests, the story lies in those moments. As much as the kids want to fight adult authority and physical restriction, they also crave the affection of the same adults. The film works around these conflicts and emotional schisms.
The director chooses never to spell things out, describe the personal background of the children or explain why they are there. But we get an idea in the revealing scenes of the children with their parents and in their conversations with the caregivers.
One recalls the now famous “Être et avoir”, but whereas the focus in the French doc was on the teacher’s character, the focus in “Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go” is more on what happens in the relationship between child and caregiver and what the child gains from it.
In a broader perspective, the theme of the film addresses the difficult healing process of children who have been abused by incompetent adults. As the film shows, this results in violent and destructive behaviour, but the camera also catches the subtle shifts of mood and expressions in a child’s face during the talks with the teachers, where anger transforms into confidence and the healing process seems to begin.