Helen Simon Describes the Difficulties of Making the Important Doc ‘No Lullaby’
No Lullaby is a difficult film to watch, but that’s precisely why Helen Simon made it. Simon tells the story of Tina Reuther, a woman who was repeatedly abused sexually by her father while growing up. Tina never spoke out about her suffering, keeping it hidden and, eventually, repressing any memories of it. Years later, Tina got married and had a daughter, Floh. After divorcing, Tina had her parents look after Floh while she worked. It wasn’t until Floh was in her 20s when she revealed that Tina’s father sexually abused her as well, and unlike her mother Floh took action. She took Tina’s father to court, but the trial was such a horrifying experience for Floh she committed suicide shortly afterward.
Helen Simon uses a narrow, artistic approach to convey Tina and Floh’s stories. Despite Floh being dead, Simon considers her and Tina to be the two protagonists of her film. Simon only interviews Tina and Johanna, a former lover of Floh’s. The interviews are crosscut between Simon narrating transcripts from the trial, with different artistic compositions and shots playing over the narration. The neutral, emotionless narration combined with these shots provide an intense emotional reaction from hearing Tina and Floh’s experiences.
Helen Simon was gracious enough to sit down and talk with us in advance of No Lullaby’s world premiere at Hot Docs. We get into her visual style for the film, the role society plays in creating these types of stories, the stigma of being a victim, the lengths she had to go to in order to make her film, the risks she faces in releasing it, and much more. No Lullaby premieres Wednesday, April 30th at Hot Docs. You can learn more about the film, and buy tickets, here.
This is your graduation film from Munich Film School. Were you ever expecting your graduation film to get into a festival like Hot Docs?
Of course not [Laughs]. To tell you the truth this is my first feature film ever. The two films I made before were all hard. I’ve always done hard films but they were always short films. This is my first long film, and I knew that the subject would be extremely hard to sell or to get people interested in, to get them to watch. I am just so amazed and thankful that Hot Docs took it and said “Okay, this is important.” Yeah, I didn’t expect it at all.
When you say you make hard films, do you mean in terms of subject matter?
What draws you to that?
I don’t know. I think everybody does what they’re able to do, what they have a feeling for. It’s strange that I’ve always had this feeling for subjects that no one else really wants to look at, and that’s what I want to do. I want to talk about things people don’t want to talk about. Have them look at things that are important to look at but they just don’t want to look at them.
How did you find out about Tina? How did you convince her to do the film?
The film took four years to make, it was a really long process. I knew from the beginning that I would have to find a protagonist that’s strong enough to go through the process with me. It took me about 8-10 months just to find Tina. I went researching all over Germany and got into all the different institutions and associations that do work with sexual abuse victims. I tried to find someone who would be able to do this very intimate story because that’s what I wanted [from the beginning]. I had seen a lot of media coverage on sexual abuse, and I never liked it because it was just the surface. It never really got into why these things happened.
I heard about her story through someone else who had met Floh (Tina’s daughter) and told me about this story. I knew it had to be this story because it wasn’t easy. You have a mother who, in some way actually, she could have stopped it, she didn’t stop it. She had her reasons, it’s understandable, but it’s a difficult, complicated situation and that’s what I wanted to do. I met up with her and she said “Yes” right away. I didn’t have to convince her. She had the ultimate motivation. She couldn’t help her daughter, she failed, which was extremely hard on her. And for her, making this film was sort of [her saying] “I can’t save her anymore, but maybe this story can help someone else.”
It’s such an extraordinary story. Did it get any media attention in Germany?
No, no. It was covered in Munich where the court was. There was one or two articles in the papers on the trial but no, not nationally. It’s because these things happen too often, this is not a story that’s…it happens a lot.
What really interested me were your artistic choices when it came to finding footage to go along with your reading of the trial’s transcripts. Could you go into your process on how you came up with the visual style for those scenes?
There were two aspects of the film that were extremely hard [to make decisions on]. That was the second one. Finding a visual aesthetic and images for that storyline of [reading text from] the protocols (Note: Protocols refers to the transcripts of the trial). It was a long process. We had five boxes full of protocols, and I had to make the story out of these, I don’t know how many pages we had. I knew from the beginning that I would need to find something that on the one side could carry the protocols but doesn’t go beyond them. It can’t be too much. I had to have the courage, and I say that specifically because these kinds of films lack the courage to just be experimental or do something that’s a little crazy, like you don’t know if it’s going to work. Like the shots of the forest, who knows? Is this gonna work for anybody? I had the feeling it might, it felt right for Floh, but I didn’t know. To do that with such a topic that’s so hard…it’s hard to find visuals for that.
What was also clear was that you have to have two different visual perspectives, one for Tina and one for Floh. I oriented myself by the psychological aspect of the two protagonists and how they experienced the abuse. I knew that, for Tina, the abuse was long gone and hidden somewhere in the back of her mind. There was no time in the interview where she was able to talk about what had happened or specifically say what her father did. I was glad because I didn’t want to get into that with her, but I knew that I would have to find visuals for that. When I talked to her and found out about her story it was clear it had to be, you know, tableaux. It had to be stills that just depict this idea of being locked in, but it’s so far away you can’t really reach it.
On the other hand you have Floh who was totally different. It was right at the surface with her. She carried it around with her. She wasn’t able to suppress it the way that her mother did. Those images had to be alive. And then I had to find images for the jury and about the situation. I decided to use seasons because that was one of the first questions from the protocols, what time of year [the abuse] happened more frequently. I thought that was so absurd. She was like 6 years old, who gives a shit? You know what I mean? And that’s just the way that they deal with these things. They don’t know how to deal with it either. And I just thought okay, let’s go with that and try to find different times of year.
How much of the film was an intuitive approach for you?
[Pause] All of it. [Laughs]
I had spent so much time with Tina and Floh, which is a little macabre because Floh had been dead and I just spent time with the protocols. It was just like spending time with her, and I felt so close with them that I had this idea about the shots of the forewst. I tried it out and hoped for the best.
There’s an implication in the documentary, not from you but from the situation itself, that one of the reasons why Tina might still be alive today is because she never spoke out. And by doing the right thing, Floh ends up paying with her life.
It’s an interesting observation, it never crossed my mind to think that way but I can understand how you can. And I thought maybe it’s true, in some sense it might just be true. Because all of this happens within a context and a structure. It’s a social structure that sort of defines how you’re able to make it in this life. I don’t believe it’s coming out of yourself. It’s just, you know, nature makes us strong or not it’s the social context in which we grow up in. and the way we live today it’s still dominant if you close up and you don’t talk about the things you’re not supposed to talk about and if you act like people want you to act you’ll survive better. I guess that is how it is today.
You only interview Tina and Johanna (Floh’s partner) in your film. Did you consider interviewing other people and getting different perspectives?
That was a deliberate decision. I wanted the absence of Floh to be felt. I don’t know if I succeeded in that, but it was important for me. It was a critical moment in the decision making because a lot of people told me “No you can’t do that, you got to interview more people that knew Floh so we can get a better image of her.” I understood that, I understand that people want that, but that’s not the reality. The reality is that she’s gone, and there’s a huge absence. That’s painful and hard, but I think it’s right. I didn’t go out [looking for other people to interview]. I wanted Johanna because it was Floh’s biggest love, and she was able to tell us things about Floh that Tina never knew. Apart from that I didn’t…no. Every perspective would have been an idea of something we don’t know, so let’s leave it at that.
Something your film touches on is a disturbing trend in society where people can’t accept victims. It seems it’s hard for people to grasp the concept that a person isn’t responsible for something terrible that happens to them. The verdict in the trial shows that, because it implies Floh was complicit with the abuse.
I think there are different aspects to the idea of being a victim that are screwed up. On the one hand you actually have the problem with people being victimized, and just being a victim. That was also an aspect that was very important for me when I chose the protagonist. I wanted someone that was strong and had a life that I could show in some sense, and Tina is a strong person that can talk very well. That was important too, that she could get to the point. This idea of being a victim is kind of easy to us, you know, “She’s the victim,” and that makes it easy because you don’t have to see eye to eye to that person. You don’t have to respect them.
On the other hand, if there’s a victim there’s always someone who’s done something bad. There’s always the other side. And I actually believe that, if we talk specifically about sexual abuse, it is a problem of patriarchy. I do believe it has a lot to do with that. And that’s very hard to take for a society because all of society is built upon that ideal. A topic like [sexual abuse] just rips into that and says “Wait, look at this. Look at how we are, how this system is treating children or treating women.” And this happens to men too, but that’s also patriarchy, there’s no difference. So we can’t deal with victims because they show us what’s going wrong with our system.
When I hear stories about someone getting hurt, I hear people say “Why didn’t they do anything?” in response, and it’s an absurd mentality. The idea that, when something is brought on to someone that brings great harm, their inaction is somehow wrong or makes them wrong.
It’s their fault that it’s happening to them, because they’ve acted somehow wrong and it’s not…well I guess it’s because we have a structural problem. It’s a structural problem and you can’t…That’s why it’s so hard to make a film about it, because on the one hand you really have to do an emotional film in order to get people interested and have them feel what’s happening. On the other hand you can’t make it too emotional because…
It gets exploitative or manipulative.
You’re talking about Tina’s story, but it’s also a symbol of legal and social injustices. How are you combining these two approaches? You’re clearly telling a personal story but you also want to make a grander statement.
That was one of the biggest problems for me. I wanted, at the end of the film, like a [title card] that says “so and so many children get abused every year” and make this social statement. I came into it with that political aspect, and at the end it was clear I couldn’t do that anymore. This is such a personal film. You can’t break it. That hurt a little, because I wanted it deeply, but it wouldn’t have helped the film. I’m so grateful that I was allowed to have the protocols of the trial. Without the trial the film would not have been the film. The trial makes it political, it gives it a social aspect that it never would have had with just the personal story.
Did you have any issues getting the protocols?
Yeah, it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of issues, to tell you the truth. The other aspect that was extremely hard was that I needed to get the signature from the perpetrator.
Yeah, from Tina’s father. He had to allow me to make the film. That’s why we had 4 years to make it. I spent half a year trying to convince him to give me a signature so I could make the movie. That was going through hell because I spent 3 or 4 times a week talking to him, and he tried to manipulate me. It was really hardcore, but he gave me the signature. I still don’t know why, but he gave it to me.
Could you go into some more detail about getting his signature?
To tell you the truth I don’t really know. I knew I needed it, and I also knew that I would never get it if I had a false state of mind. I would definitely need to respect him, and see him in the same way that I would see Tina, emotionally and open up to him. You have to do that, otherwise don’t try. That was very hard. It got interesting because we spent so much time with each other, and he was lying throughout. He still believes he’s innocent, that he never did anything, but he was emotionally very ill. He tried to manipulate me the way he manipulated others. It was this huge thing for me to stick to the facts, that no matter what he does you respect him and you treat him like anybody else, and you open up to him and you stay opened. I think that, at the end of the day, he was a very lonely person. He was very ill and very lonely, and having this long contact with someone for over half a year was actually the aspect that helped him to open up to me. I don’t think he actually wanted to help [Floh or Tina]. I think that he, in this sick way, wanted to help me, and that’s why he gave me his signature.
Are you still in contact with Tina?
I was there over Easter. We’re really in close contact, that’s very important to me. Not only am I extremely grateful to her, but she had the hardest job in this film. I just really loved her in a sense. It’s unbelievable how she’s able to be so honest today. I don’t know if I could ever be that honest.
You open the film with Floh’s suicide note. This interested me because, maybe I’m just used to other approaches to similar subject matter, but you immediately let the audience know the outcome of this story. I think other filmmakers would have approached it from a more chronological perspective. You’d see the story as it actually unfolded, and would have saved Floh’s suicide for the ending. What made you decide to open with that?
We had arguments on how to do that. For me it was…I had to get all the surface information out of the way because it’s about something different. It’s about really getting deep into it. I don’t want to build up to it. I want the audience to know right at the beginning what this is about. To understand that the fall is a big one. The protagonist is dead, who we’re talking about is dead, and that makes a point right at the beginning. Once that gets out of the way, we have the freedom to get into why it happens because that’s what I wanted to tell. For me it was extremely important for people to understand the complex structures that are built around things like sexual abuse in the family system. It’s extremely complex.
Has she seen the film?
No. She can’t.
There are moments where she’s going through photo albums. She agreed to do the film, but how did you feel about making her dive into these traumatic memories?
Before I started the film, I did some schooling on how to be with deeply traumatized people. I tried to prepare myself for these interviews. What was clear was that [the interviews] always had to be the same time of day, always the same length, and it had to have a very safe environment for her. I tried to make that happen, to make it safe as possible. We always did 1, 1.5 hours every time. Every time it was like a bomb exploding, and we got really fast, really deep, and that surprised me as well. I think what was important that I didn’t hold back. I felt like she doesn’t want to, she can’t, so I’m not going to. I’m going to go in there with her. I’m going to dive in there with her even if I’m shocked and a little scared because I don’t really know how to handle it. I’m responsible. She’s being re-traumatized every time we are having an interview. Definitely. I am responsible. This is what she wants, she’s going there and I’m going there with her. We stuck through it together.
Have you heard anything from Tina’s family?
The family threatened me before I made the film that they would sue me afterwards. She has a brother, and he threatened to sue me. This is our [world premiere] here in Canada so I don’t think anything’s going to happen, but our next screening will be in Munich which is their hometown.
Are you nervous?
Yeah. I’ll see what will happen then.
Do you have anything planned for the future?
I’m already working on a new film. It’s about child trafficking. I love [making hard films], I need it or otherwise I don’t make a film. I need something that I really believe in and I feel has to be made. I’ve been researching it for the last 6 months. We now have a TV station coming into the project, and I’m going to be doing a film on a home for children that, for some reason or another, got out of child trafficking in Europe. They’ve been prostituted and terrible, terrible things have happened. They land in a home somewhere in Bulgaria where no one gives a shit. The State pushes them aside, they’re not allowed to go back to their families, they don’t have a future and no one cares. That’s where I’m going, and I’m going to make a film about them.
You bookend the film with two shots: It opens with the camera moving toward a house, and it closes with the camera moving away from it. It gives off the feeling that this is anybody’s story.
My intent was exactly that. This is what happens, maybe happens, behind your neighbour’s house. Behind the walls of that house.