An Elephant in the Room: Danish director Katrine Philp on her new documentary on children and grief
As adults, we envy children their fantasy, their hopes and expectations, and their innocence of all anxieties and threats. But what happens when a child’s tranquil bubble is ruptured by the death of a loved one and the thrill of play is subsumed by total grief and absence? That is the topic of An Elephant in the Room, the noteworthy new documentary by Emmy-nominated Danish film director Katrine Philp that dives head-on into the baffling topic of children and grief.
In An Elephant in the Room Katrine Philps brings the viewer into the daily life of Good Grief — a community organization in New Jersey that works with children experiencing the loss of a loved one — where the harsh reality of grief and childhood are openly confronted. Sometimes, the documentary seems to say, profound loss cannot be dealt with solely by talking through the pain. Often, particularly for children, much more is needed.
With An Elephant in the Room landing at the SXSW 2020 film festival in Austin on March 16–20, Denmark in New York caught up with Katrine Philp to learn about the inspiration behind her documentary and what inspired her to embed herself and her family at the Good Grief community for four months in order to complete filming.
Denmark in New York: It was a podcast from This American Life about children and grief that first inspired you to produce the documentary An Elephant in the Room. What about this podcast impacted you in particular and assured you that this was an important topic for you to cover as a documentarian?
Katrine Philp: I was immediately drawn to the children’s openness and natural way of speaking about death. We quickly found and contacted Good Grief in New Jersey and were met by an amazing and innovative CEO, Joe Primo. He invited us to come and film, and after just one day of filming I was sure that there was a film to be discovered at Good Grief. Joe and his fantastic staff helped us to connect with the families and we started filming them both at Good Grief and in their homes.
I quickly experienced that the children we filmed were not afraid to talk about their feelings and grief and it was a huge inspiration to me because, sometimes, I think that we as adults, often find it difficult to express feelings or talk about hard things with others. The children we met were amazing and brave and, I think, we as adults can learn a lot from them.
Denmark in New York: You went to New Jersey for one week in the summer of 2018 to film. But then you returned for another four months, bringing your family along with you. What prompted you to embed yourself in the community in order to complete the documentary?
Katrine Philp: It was important for me to be close to the families. When you are in grief, some days are good and others can be difficult. I wasn’t being very flexible on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and couldn’t come every time the families were ready to be filmed. I wanted to be more present and more adaptable.
When I suggested to my family that we should move to Morristown, NJ, they all thought it could be an exciting opportunity. Our youngest was attending Kindergarten and our oldest in the local High School. My husband is also the cinematographer on the film, so for him it made great sense that we moved.
Denmark in New York: You say that with children time is a different dimension and that you needed to be very close to the kids of the documentary all the time, so that when the kids were ready to talk and discuss their complicated feelings, you could step in. What other things struck you as tricky when filming a documentary on children and grief?
Katrine Philp: I think it opened up some doors that we had the kids with us and didn’t arrive only as a film crew. We became good friends with the families and there was a lot of trust between us right from the beginning. When we weren’t filming, our kids were playing together with the children we filmed. Filming children is different than filming adults, and especially when they are sad and challenged. The children are more impulsive and can go from feeling strong emotions and being sad one moment to being happy and playing two minutes later. This is very common, but it was pretty difficult to film.
The cinematographer was always chasing the moment. Some days we couldn’t use any of the footage, that we shot, and other days magic happened and we captured a lot of fantastic scenes. We had to film a lot and just be patient. Kids sometimes have a hard time staying concentrated for a long time, so we were always prepared for what scenes we would like to film. We knew that we had to be efficient and that we could film around 1–2 hours each time, so it also made us work fast, but still always on the children’s terms.
We would never pressure them to be filmed and always be aware of their emotions and moods. It was important for us to create a comfortable and fun environment for them and a safe space where they could say and do whatever they wanted.
Denmark in New York: The Good Grief Community in New Jersey has a holistic approach to grief and mourning. How does this differ from other ways of dealing with grief?
Katrine Philp: There are a lot of places similar to Good Grief around the US, but in Denmark and Europe it is not very common to use play as they do here as an active part of the therapy. In Denmark it is mostly conversation-based therapy and therefore I found it very inspiring to explore how they work with children in grief at Good Grief. Instead of just sitting in a group talking about their feelings, they have at Good Grief, different rooms where they can go in and play and act out different emotions. They can give in to rage and frustrations in the volcano room, say goodbye to a dying teddy-bear-patient in the hospital room or bury a figurine in a miniature coffin in the indoor sandbox. When they play volunteers are there to play with them and talk to them if something comes up — and that happens a lot. The idea behind it is that not all children are ready to express their feelings verbally — but that grief can find a physical outlet through play.
Denmark in New York: You became very close with a handful of these kids when you were filming in New Jersey. What impact did their stories have on you personally?
Katrine Philp: The children and the families mean so much to me and I consider them my friends and not only as characters in the film. Meeting them as a family just made it feel very down to earth. My children became friends with the children we filmed, and all of us enjoyed very much spending time with them, also when not filming. Personally, I was very involved in the families and their grief. When I started my research on this film I didn´t know that my dad was about to become sick and die, but feeling my own grief while filming the families in grief just made complete sense. I completely understood what the families were going through and the challenges they were facing.
Denmark in New York: Your documentary will be screening at SXSW this March. What kind of impact are you hoping to make with An Elephant in the Room?
Katrine Philp: I am so excited for the film to meet its audience and the SXSW is one of the greatest festivals in the US to premiere at. It is a film that celebrates childhood and life and I hope that the audience will get a personal experience where they will reflect on the big questions in life. One of the worst things after my Dad died was the silence of people not knowing what to say, avoiding me, maybe struck with fear of how to talk about death and grief. I hope this film will make us all braver when we encounter people who have lost and I think the courageous children in the film can help us with that.