14 February 2015

THERE IS ANOTHER WORLD AND IT IS IN THIS ONE. ABOUT ANNA ODELL

© Photo: Eva Edsjö (evaedsjo.com).

I have become convinced that these courageous people, in winning their struggles, must learn things about genuine living, and about genuine sanity, that the rest of us never even imagined.

– Martha Stout, The Myth of Sanity

Not everyone grows up to be cowboys. “When we watch films and read books, we often encounter people who are complex and perhaps different and who make us excited,” says Swedish artist and filmmaker Anna Odell (b 1973). “And that is what I think in real life, that we should also see these people who at first seem a bit different or odd or weird as exciting little treasures. After all, it is experiences that get us going, and it is an experience to learn about an individual who is not like everyone else.” Odell, she is one of those precious treasures that you are drawn to, for her eloquence and genuine sanity, for her fire.

When Odell was hosting national broadcaster Sveriges Radio’s vastly popular Sommar (Summer) programme in August 2010, she started off her ninety minutes with a story of abounding sunshine – the carefree, cloistered Midsummer Eve that she had spent together with her son on a rock high above a lake in Stockholm. There was only one thing that they couldn’t agree on by the end of the day as they were scampering off to the water: “Mum,” said the boy, “you can’t skinny dip now that you are Anna Odell.”

Odell’s absolutely stellar feature film The Reunion (Återträffen, 2013) – which to this day has been sold to almost forty countries – is her fictionalised documentary drama that begins with a wickedly distressing school reunion. Odell plays a troubled version of herself as she, in this imagined form, attends the party that her real classmates did not invite her to, twenty years post primary school. Anna’s opening speech in the first part of the film is of course a planned surprise directed to her old tormentors around the table:

“I was the butt of the jokes, the one who got shoved, the outcast, the one you all hoped to avoid. I became a loser. I saw myself the way many of you saw me, preferably not at all. In those days, bullying was considered harmless, ‘It is just kids being kids.’ But we were not just kids to each other. I am not blaming you. Ultimately it was the fault of our teachers, or maybe our parents. But I believe that it was my fault too, for not giving in, for constantly trying to fit in. Yet I also realised, as time went by, that something was wrong with me. Like the rest of you, I also wanted to avoid Anna Odell.”

“The clinical picture of a person who has been reduced to elemental concerns of survival is still frequently mistaken for a portrait of the victim’s underlying character,” argues Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”

Unknown, Female 2009-349701 (Okänd, kvinna 2009-349701) is Odell’s important, purposeful examination of the improprieties within the country’s psychiatric healthcare system – for anyone who has been there and for those who have been spared: its basic lack of empathy, professionalism and plain decency – and the Swedish attitudes towards mental illness. With this work she was challenging an institutional beast with a grandiose opinion of itself and its powers.

It was this famous work that awarded Odell her Bachelor of Arts degree at Konstfack – Stockholm’s University College of Art, Craft and Design – and which became the most debated issue in Sweden in 2009, much thanks to the country’s loudest authority in psychiatry who displayed his callousness and severe megalomania through the many nutty and criminally unpleasant comments he made about Odell in the media. She was also prosecuted and, in part, convicted for Unknown, Female that summer. But Odell persisted: “I have decided that my fears will not be greater than what I want in life. And my way of living is to be an artist.”

You have to respect an artist who has to fight and howl for her cause and her bit of greatness. John Cassavetes once reflected that “I think we’re just reporters, all of us basically. We report from a certain point of view on what we feel, on what we see and what is important to us.” Odell uses both herself and her personal history in order to visualise things that would be difficult to identify through other mediums than art. She makes clear, however, that her art is not essentially about herself and her own feelings. Odell, she is real, judicious and extraordinary. As Gerald Casale expressed it on TV when Devo was into astronauts: “Being self-aware puts you in a strange position.”

She describes the period between the end of primary school when she was fifteen and the birth of her son when she was twenty-three as “an eight-year journey between chaos and treatment centres, an eternity of loneliness”. The first time Odell was committed to a psych ward (“where the clock has no numbers, only markings for meals”) she was nineteen. A few years later she lost herself in a harrowing psychosis. She was found wandering on the Liljeholmen Bridge in Stockholm and then shackled and treated as if she were a criminal: “I don’t quite remember when the handcuffs went on. But I remember the cheek against the floor in the police van, the weight of the three big officers over me, and that I was lost for breath. I was twenty-two and terrified.”

The doctors (or healers as they are also called in Sweden) told Odell that she was a schizophrenic and rendered her beyond recall. As a result of Odell’s precise and highly intelligent restaging of her breakdown on the bridge in Unknown, Female in 2009, she became the persona non grata for the “People of Reality” (a trademark of the Christian Democrats) who – as described by the then Minister for Social Affairs – “live their lives as most people do. Who think it is okay with family, to work, take holidays, have cosy Fridays and watch television.” Odell, in her Summer show, reasoned that it is part of the job as an artist “to use your imagination and to create new worlds”:

“Since reality can be seen and experienced in an almost infinite number of perspectives, it might be that the difference between reality and unreality is not that great. The more you see and take in of reality, the more complex and more diverse it becomes. The ability to see things from multiple perspectives may perhaps increase the ability to add even more perspectives. Then maybe those who live near what is called unreality also live closer to reality, which in turn would mean that the more reality you take in, the closer you find yourself to unreality. Then maybe the children, the mentally ill and the so-called pompous cultural elite reversely become the people of reality.”

When biologist Peter Turchin was a guest on BBC Forum with Bridget Kendall – in the program about hierarchies (December 16, 2014) – he asserted that humans for the better part of our history lived in (as he put it) “furiously egalitarian societies” in which “There were no alpha males similar to a chimpanzee group, in fact, any male trying to become an alpha male would be collectively suppressed by the group. That sort of Eden-like society lasted until five thousand years ago when the first centralised societies appeared. So basically what happened was that as humans multiplied and filled up the Earth, human groups started to get in conflict and warfare with each other.”

A kid in the American documentary Bully (2011) says that, “If I was the king of the US of A, I would make everybody equal.” His friend, Tyler Long, was a targeted victim for a proverbial group of young primates striving for dominance in their school. Eleven years old, Tyler hanged himself in his bedroom closet. The boy had been told too many times that he was ugly and worthless. Steven Pinker puts the peer barbarism in schools, where children are being harmed for real, next to the ludicrously overprotecting parenting-musts and the “lawyer-vetted playgrounds” in all other areas of childhood in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. As an example he mentions a Sesame Street DVD box that came with a warning sticker that the material was unsuitable for children. Tyler’s bullies wore nooses around their necks the day after his death to celebrate their latest triumph. “Tell me how to fix this,” says the proverbial school official in Bully. “I don’t know. I don’t have any magic.”

The Reunion is a film with disquieting edges. The director says that she wants to disturb the sound of silence. The Reunion is a humane and luminous rendition of the mean and petty mores that belong to unjust societies – seen from a school perspective – and the film is a balance act between a rational approach towards the oppressors, and a Tourette’s version of how about letting them know all the things they do not want to know. The Modernist Fernand Léger was spot-on when he said that “Very few people like the truth, with all the risks it involves, and yet cinema is a terrible invention for producing truth when you want it. It is a diabolical invention that can unfurl and light up everything that has been hidden.”

Mathilde Dedye of French Quarter Film, who produced The Reunion, tells The Stockholm Review that what definitely excites her is when a seriously innovative idea awakens her curiosity about the possibility to watch it as a film: “Anna and I met in her studio at Mejan [the Royal Institute of Art], and she told me about the idea she had about creating a fictional dramatisation of her class reunion. Together with the actors, she wanted to explore how a reunion might have been if she had received that invitation, and that everything would be done in an improvised way and as authentic as possible. She told me about the background to the idea, that she had been preparing this project for several years. It was a very interesting and inspiring meeting. I knew already on the way out that this was something I had to be part of, so I texted her directly.”

“The second part of the film was to be documentary from the beginning, where Anna was to meet the real classmates. But while working with the first part, we concluded that we would much rather stay in the fiction. We were not dependent on the classmates’ willingness or unwillingness to participate, besides, there’s nothing that says that just because something happens in real life it is automatically good film material – it could be just the opposite, that the participants may be uncomfortable and not wanting to speak. By turning the documentary into a research work, which we then recreated, we could of course go much further in our efforts to get in touch with the classmates since they don’t appear in the film personally.”

I met a very beautiful and very hungry Anna Odell last winter for an interview about The Reunion. As it happens, we are in a café near the Liljeholmen Bridge. I am quoting the Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg, “One can always interfere in someone’s destiny. Any bandit can do that,” from his masterful novel The Serious Game (1912) in relation to the film. “It is my wish that people should reflect more about their roles. I just hope they will, and I want them to think,” says Odell. She speaks readily, with occasional pauses to consider and precise her words or to end a sentence with an exhalation. I have never quite heard anyone exhale like that.

“I have wanted to examine a dynamic and a fear of talking about certain things, so it doesn’t feel right for me to go into such a quote that still involves calling them bandits,” she objects. “Others can make such claim. I am curious about the complexity. Why did it turn out this way, and who’s to blame? Are the others bandits because someone else has not been able to set boundaries? I have really, really tried hard not to present them in a different way, not to make them better or worse. I have tried not to go into what in any way may involve guilt. Had I gone into this talking about my pain, then the focus had been on me instead of the group, and it would have been about blaming those I wanted to meet and to get a conversation with as open as possible. And that is the opposite of what I wanted to do. I have been more focused on what happens when someone takes that place. In the first part of The Reunion, when I go on like I do, it is as much an examination as a play on my part – a play with the media picture of me from Unknown, Female when people saw me as a half-mad, boundless provocateur.”

We talk about school bullying. “I think that you should make demands, and I think it is scary how it looks in school today. When it comes to physical violence, then the school usually reacts instantaneously. But not when it comes to the psychological, which I think cuts deeper because it is very difficult to understand that those who harass you verbally are wrong,” says Odell. “Although bullying naturally occurs in the workplace, there are so many things that we accept in school that we would never accept in a workplace. And it is strange to assume that children must be stronger and endure more than we do. We wouldn’t bear to work in a place with those noise levels, or where there is a risk that someone trips you or gives you a hard slap in the back. That would never be okay, but in school it is. So why are we doing this to the children?”

We talk about what she would have done if her son were bullied. “I think that I was quite aware of this before, but once you have a child you understand and begin to think about it,” she responds. “As for my own child, I would at once demand that this must end right away. But I know that this might not always be sufficient. Has the bullying been going on for a while, I think, unfortunately, that it can be hard to stop and that many kids might be involved, and the main thing is to protect one’s child and not let it stay there at all costs. Bullying does so much harm, and if the school isn’t going to listen to the problem and deal with it then my advice is to change school at once.”

Bertolt Brecht’s dictum that “Realism doesn’t consist in reproducing reality, but in showing how things really are” – or could have been – runs through The Reunion. The super-inspirational dramaturgy moves between various impressions of reality – like in that inconveniently funny scene when an actor from Part One, “The Speech”, is playing “himself” as he is having a beer outside a restaurant in Part Two, “The Meetings”, and finds himself confronted by Anna’s “real” classmate (played by another actor), the guy he is playing at the derailed reunion party. The film is full of anxious meetings that are right on the mark about human nature, full of twisted faces and awkward body postures that speak of arrogance, narcissism, disgust, and sometimes embarrassment, but hardly any shame. No one is sorry.

“I knew that the twentieth anniversary of my old class was approaching,” says Odell. “And I was thinking of going, and to deliver a speech similar to that first one in the film where I’m not making any personal attacks, and in some way let it develop as an art project. But when I started writing on this speech, I also found out that there had been a reunion where everyone was invited except me, and then I had to rethink. I came up with the idea of working with actors and to try and find out what it was that they wanted to prevent from happening. I thought that I wanted to work with film, but it was not completely obvious that it would be a feature film throughout. I contacted various producers and most of them said that they wanted to work with me but that they were scheduled for at least six months ahead. Why, I wanted to begin at once!”

Mathilde Dedye very soon understood that it was a great solution to have Odell playing Anna Odell in both parts of the film: “With no previous experience of directing, it was the fastest and safest way to achieve exactly what she wanted. She knew she could go to extremes in pushing herself, but not if she could demand the same from another actress. We therefore made a pilot film where Anna had to improvise around the speech at the party, as a prologue to the film, which was a way for both her and me to test her as an actress. The result was so strong that we knew that Anna was right for the role as herself.”

The Reunion is so truthful and the directing so considerate that the film plays like a dream. It is real to the point that it doesn’t feel acted. I ask Odell how she approached the actors. “A lot of things were about finding strategies that would take me where I wanted. One thing was of course when we arrived at the conclusion that it was I who would play my role that I had to feel something in relation to these actors. They didn’t have to be spitting images, but something about them had to remind me of the real memory I had from when I was a child. Among other things, all the actors who we cast and even the extras had to begin with recounting their own schooldays, so that most of them would have the place in the hierarchy as the person that they are playing, which meant that I could get help from them in the formation of the adult characters. And then there was a dramaturgist who I worked with. And that’s right, we rehearsed a lot, which is not common practice when you make film, to manage this situation where I would be both director and actor. I am very bad at learning lines by heart, and a way of relating to this was to be able to improvise even if every scene has its own dramaturgy. There were often things that had to be in those scenes, but they had to fall into place so there were unusually long takes.” She smiles.

We talk about how she achieved to pull out those phenomenal levels of contempt from the cast towards Anna. “We rehearsed so much because I knew that if we all got to know our own characters, and each other as characters, we could also naturally relate to who we were during an improvisation, what they thought of each other, because we would act as if we had actually known each other for nine years. We also rehearsed in a school where we all acted fifteen year olds so that the actors would not only relate to the director Anna, who they listen to, but also get to know Anna the loser. It was important for me that they could actually show a kind of genuine contempt to go with the acting. A kind of physical memory of the time we had.”

We talk about the school reunion that she actually went to, the tenth anniversary reunion in 1999, as opposed to the one in 2009 that she wasn’t welcomed to – and how a person who is brutalised sometimes form those very close attachments to her (or his) tormentors. “As things were now, I no longer had any need of any confirmation from them. But I felt that no matter how they reacted, I thought it would have been really very interesting. While then it was they who had the capacity to confirm that I was worthy to have a life. So it was a total difference. I went there and was terrified and tried, I guess, to still be something they would find interesting. And the only revolt I did to somehow let them know that what happened in the past has damaged me, was to say that I wanted to work with bullying. But I had no self-confidence, so it was not so successful.”

Odell, she says what she means and she means what she says. There are things that she asks me not to write. But whatever or whoever she talks about there is never a trace of vindictiveness or nastiness in her words. Bitterness has not spoiled her intelligence and charm.

Imaginative individuals will of course learn the hard way that the thing about creativity is that it is rarely recognised or not even liked. As Barry Staw, Leadership and Communication researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, told Slate last year: “We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the aftereffect.” Odell realised that she is not a person who is able to think and do things like everyone else. As a child she was terrified of the thought of growing up since she figured that it would be the end of play. She came to live under a black sun. Her illness ended when she found another means to make life manageable again: “For me, it is my way to relate to life – explore, investigate, construct … and deconstruct [we laugh]. And when I realised that being an artist is to play but being a grownup, then I had a way of relating to adult life that works for me.”

Odell describes the working conditions when they were shooting the thirty-eight-minute-long “The Speech”. “It was madness. We did the first part of the film in four days, and afterwards my brain felt like a hard drive that was so close to crash because it was such a huge job. But it worked.” It worked. This is great cinema. “The Speech” begins with a somnambulistic Steadicam shot through an empty school corridor. The institutional unpleasantness of this scene, where time seems forever set at 9:04 and everything is mute, is like an echo of Will You Be Profitable, Little Friend? (Blir du lönsam, lille vän?) – Peter Tillberg’s big, photorealistic canvas that he finished in 1972 as a memory of his schooldays in the 1950s. It shows a classroom with the same kind of ball lamps in the ceiling as in the film. Every student is looking at us, the unnaturally elevated teacher, everyone except a daydreaming girl.

“Evolution made its bet that suffering was an acceptable price to pay for all the rewards of being human,” reasons Matthew Liebermann in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. “I bring up bullying because at societal level, it is probably the most pervasive form of social rejection we have. Studies from around the world […] suggest that between the ages of twelve and sixteen, about ten per cent of students are bullied on a regular basis. Although bullying can involve physical aggression, more than eighty-five per cent of bullying events do not.”

Anna arrives at the party as “the great artist” – Unknown, Female 2009-349701 is mentioned in passing as “that suicide thing” – but most of her old classmates are back to the person they were in relation to the others when they were fifteen – though some are more fifteen than others – and they still regard her as a “fucking loony”. Anna just loses it when one of the guys ends his hypocritical speech about their “innocent” years together with the words, “And if there is one thing I wish for my own kids, it is that they experience the same sense of camaraderie that we had.” From then on everything derails until the whole group sees that she is heavy-handedly disposed from the building. “The Speech” ends with an asinine sarcasm, “This is art!”

Odell says that, “Before I started working properly with the script I thought of occasions when people bothered me, to try to understand and try to create their reactions in a context in which they had a memory of that we had a good time in school. And then it is no wonder that they think ‘It was she who was weird, why the hell is she ruining our party?’ From their point of view it is very relevant. And that’s what I think is important when you create a story: to understand each and everyone, to make their response development credible.”

She contacted her real classmates after “The Speech” was completed. Two-thirds of the old class agreed to see her, watch the film and to discuss it with her (one-on-one or together with a backup). What surprised her was that everyone stayed for several hours. These conversations, and the fairly mild confrontations that Odell had with the others who didn’t show up, more or less made the script for “The Meetings”.

On a Friday afternoon in the film Anna encounters the bully who most brutally and shamelessly injured her emotional life in school. Decades later he is still a pathetic little tyrant. But there is also the hilariousness of Sanna and Linda in Anna’s sofa as they tittle-tattle like two wicked little schoolgirls when she shortly leaves the room and offers them to grab a sandwich from the plate on the table: “Are they edible?” “What if they’re poisoned?” That is how their grown-up minds are oriented.

One of the worst self-serving losers in “The Speech” reemerges in “The Meetings” as Anna’s helper. At the end of the film they walk through those miserable corridors at Enskede skola and up the stairs to the roof like two gentle conquerors. And here is where the pain and the poetry, the suffering and the dignity of The Reunion begin to elevate. The war is over.

Odell received the first of her many awards for The Reunion at the Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2013. The Reunion played in Swedish cinemas that winter, and was tremendously well received, and it went on to win Best Film and Best Screenplay (Odell was also nominated for Best Actress) at the Swedish Film Institute’s yearly Guldbagge Awards in January 2014.

I want to hear what she thinks of the recent turnabout in the debate about the film. “I think that those who have been critical have not been so in a particularly relevant way,” she replies. “They have confused criticism of the method and criticism of the film, which I think you have to separate. They have claimed to criticise the film while they actually criticised the method, and vice versa, and claimed to know that I wanted something different than what I did, though I have always done what I wanted. However, as much as I decide what I want to do I also allow myself to be guided by what is happening.”

Michel Houellebecq mumbles something interesting (and he must be talking about the country as the world’s stronghold of the emotional and intellectual dishonesty of political correctness) in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (2014): “Sweden is one of the most undemocratic countries in the world. Sweden is a real dictatorship. It is impossible to think what you want. It’s worse than France.”

In his article “The Hounding of the Tinkers” in The Independent on Sunday (April 25, 1999), Fisher Dilke examines Sweden’s disgraceful and very active history of eugenics until the abolition of the Sterilisation Act in 1975. 36,000 people who had been rendered useless for the welfare state – as dictated by the Folkhemmet bible Crisis in the Population Question (1934) by Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, the couple who advocated “the culling of highly unfit individuals” and their “undesirable genes” – were forcibly sterilised with the full participation of the medical profession, and, in cases of mental illness, committed to some revolting institution or a gulag. Dilke’s conclusion is correct: “Sweden’s liberalism was achieved through a fear of nonconformism.”

Dr David Eberhard was in charge of Sweden’s largest psychiatric emergency ward, Sankt  Göran’s Hospital in Stockholm, at the time when Anna Odell acted out her mental breakdown on the bridge on January 21, 2009 for what would become the great Unknown, Female 2009-349701. The truth and the extravagant lucidity of the work disclosed, among other things, how the healthcare system devalues and humiliates the patient with its biases, lies and inherent bully mentality, and the work surely provoked Dr Eberhard to show what he is made of in a series of public statements about Odell: “Had I wanted to smash that fucker then I would have treated her as a mental patient instead.”

“Psychiatry has saved my life, probably many times over,” said Odell when she talked about Unknown, Female – which is manifested in five video parts: “Seven Conversations” (48 min), “The Liljeholmen Bridge” (14 min), “The Revelation” (7 min), “The Trial” (35 min) and “Epilogue” (26 min) – in her Summer show in 2010. “But, and this is important, power can also be abused because those who have it may also go blind.”

“I have sometimes been told that my way of implementing Unknown, Female is more journalism than art. For me it’s not really important what it is called, but I don’t think it would be possible to realise the project in the way that I have done as a journalist since psychiatry’s interpretation of the project is by itself a piece of the artwork. I went into this with a complex issue: what if I as an artist stage a self-experienced episode from a time in life where I was mentally ill and was not considered responsible for my actions? Not as a personal process, but to turn the perspective around, look at the response. As a patient you are reviewed and judged by people who are there to help you. That is of course a prerequisite for a successful treatment, but I think that sometimes it can be good to turn the perspectives around to visualise things that we might not otherwise see or be aware of.”

Our culture is full of indolence, false opinions and funny hats that make it possible to ignore emotional and social cruelty, even as it takes place in front of us. “Doing nothing is an act of omission that effectively aligns authorities with the offenders,” argue Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry in Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. “That persons of power and authority should shift and change their viewpoints in light of the accumulation of new information must be encouraged as a moral good rather than be regarded as a failure to prove a particular point.”

Dr Eberhard wrote in Sweden’s major morning paper Dagens Nyheter that Odell “and her prefect should get a haircut and get a real job. Why not recommend them for a job at the circus? Buffoons are supposed to work there.” Dr Eberhard spoke in Dagens Medicin (Medicine Today) that “If she thinks this is so fun she can come here and I shall personally inject her with a shot of Haldol. That’ll be a nice little installation.” So whose truth is the truth: the person who is – or has been – mentally ill, or the ill chief psychiatrist?

“The Revelation” showed, as Odell voiced on the radio, that the staff members at Sankt Görans Hospital “were not themselves capable of dealing with what they expect from their patients. What I mean is that as a patient it is not uncommon to be subjected to a treatment that at times can be offensive.” It also showed that it is not a very good idea to be in need of help in Sweden.

Before Odell went out on the Liljeholmen Bridge at 18:47 on January 21, 2009 in a staged condition of severe psychosis, she had researched and prepared her project meticulously over quite some time. She consulted a lawyer and several officers of the law. And she phoned almost every psychiatric emergency in the country to discuss what she was about to carry out. But the prospect of examining the boundaries between a healthy mind and an unsound soul from a philosophical point of view – and to address the issue when authorities inflict further abuse and place the responsibility for the supervision and the resolution of the trauma on the one who is harmed – and to find out if she was even allowed to put the project into practical effect – did not much touch a chord with these professionals.

It was sub-zero temperatures on the bridge when Anna Odell began to talk to the bird that had died in the palm of her hands the day before. She began to move back and forth. Her right boot came off, then the other. She threw her jacket over the railing into the water sixteen metres down. (Her brother was filming the course of events from a balcony not far from there.) Odell carefully outlined “The Liljeholmen Bridge” episode and what took place at Sankt Göran’s Hospital in her Summer show (here are a few passages):

“The feet go numb in the cold. I walk on hard lumps that no longer belong to me. I throw away the bag I have with me because the desperation increases now, both the real and the played. Several people are passing by. Sometimes I sit squatting, I am talking to the bird and try to warm my body parts. To be able to act in a credible way, I have during the week that has been created a parallel reality, like a film to relate to. I need to know my psychotic world inside out. Whatever happens, even if the staff at the hospital deal with me in a gentle way, it will be stressful both because I am misleading them and because I have been there before, when it was for real.”

Three friendly people stopped to aid her. “They ask me how I feel, if I need help. I am talking incoherently and move a few steps away towards the railing and lean out and spit several times in the water. One of the women asks if I feel sick, if I might need to vomit. She grabs my hair and keeps it backwards. I am talking about the bird, and that I have been poisoned by someone who frightens me. The other woman is talking on the phone, I hear how she asks them to send an ambulance, that she doesn’t know so much, that they cannot establish any contact with me. I sink down on my haunches. The woman who just grabbed my hair takes off her jacket and puts it over me. She pats me as you do when you want to warm someone. It is difficult, but I continue to act. I get up and walk a bit. The jacket falls off my shoulders and I let it fall to the ground. I want to turn around and whisper sorry, but I don’t do it. Sorry. You follow me at a distance. I spit in the water, talk to the dead bird, squat, I am being patted. All this is going on for what seems like an eternity.”

Odell did not have to make the slightest effort to stay in character when the police arrived. “They fold my legs and push me flat down on the stomach on the asphalt. One of them is pressing my head and plants a knee in my back. The second officer pulls back my hands and cuffs me. I play a game and at the same time I know it is for real […] They grab one arm each and get me up on my feet. A third police car is out in the roadway. I am in the middle of reality. Now there are several policemen who are struggling to take me to the cars. I resist. Despite this being planned, I am taken aback and there is no time for thought. I scream straight out.”

A belt bed was already waiting for Odell when eight strong policemen carried her into the emergency ward “as a rolled-up carpet” (as one of the officers explained during the trial). There are most likely other alternatives to deal with a desperate human being whose disorganised sounds speak of events of possible rape, of an overpowering fear, than to pull down her tights and underpants to administer three different injections of sedatives by force and to strain her to a belt bed. But that was what happened to this unknown female as well. She managed to hide away two tablets that she was told to swallow before she fell asleep that night.

Odell had to wait for her brother to arrive at the hospital the next morning (with a hidden recorder) to look the doctor in the eyes and tell her that she had faked the psychosis. She handed over a fifteen-page document, “To Stage a Psychosis”, which explained the project in detail. On the recording you hear the perplexed and disturbed doctor telling Odell that “We are here all day and night to take care of people who are coming in, fighting, spitting on us, expose the personnel to all kinds of things. And they have taken care of you in the best possible way. And you have only pretended. This is bloody awful. Get out of here!”

The first and by far the best programme in Sveriges Television’s “art scandal” series Skandal! (September 17, 2014) was about Odell’s Unknown, Female 2009-349701. A spokesperson for the National Association for Social and Mental Health, Paulina Tarabczynska, says that “Many of us recognise ourselves in what Anna Odell experienced – to be badly treated, not listened to, to be pushed to the floor … A lot of people felt violated in this context. But not the ones who are really affected by this, the patients, people who themselves are mentally ill.”

The hospital filed a police report against Odell a few days after she had been taken there by brute force. In this programme, Dr Eberhard is asked about his lies about Odell, the reporter is mentioning the spitting: “Although she didn’t spit on our staff so to speak physically we, all of us, experienced that she still did it, virtually.” “How do you mean?” “With this whole installation we experienced that she has no respect for the profession, no respect for other patients.” This is a head doctor who has officially called Odell – a patient of his hospital – a brain-dead super idiot.

The level of discussion in this country follows the same template as the old market economy with the two alternatives to choose from – for or against – and what is usually discussed (in the comfort of ignorance) is the debate per se. That was exactly what happened to Unknown, Female before anyone knew anything about the work. Chaos broke out and Odell lived under police protection until the degree exhibition opened at the Konstfack University that spring. “I was too afraid to relate to the media. Then. I had also an experience of that I couldn’t talk to people. And then to talk to the media about a work that was not completed, and to furthermore tell that I had been mentally ill, then I would really seem like this mentally unstable and disordered artist.” Odell says that many mothers of psychologically unwell children contacted her during these three and a half months to let her know that they were all behind her. Strangely enough, the death threats ended straight off the day she broke the silence and revealed that she had a personal history of mental illness.

I saw a lot of Anna Odell in the fall of 2013 and in the beginning of 2014 and she impressed me like no one else. One of those events took place at Kägelbanan in Stockholm when Sveriges Radio presented an evening with guest interviews and snippets from the public broadcaster’s best documentaries of the year. The feature that commanded most attention at Radiodokumentärerna was Daniel Velasco’s “The Belted Girl” (broadcast in two parts on January 13 and 20, 2013) about the girl Nora while she was in the compulsory care of Dr Ola Gefvert (a friend of Dr Eberhard’s). You hear Dr Gefvert – a personification of Swedish authority culture at its worst – telling Nora (wearing a hidden recorder) that “No one believes in therapeutic processing anymore. What happened happened, and it doesnt fucking matter how you think about it. The less you talk about it, the better.”

Nora had to be taken to a hospital during her hospitalisation. She was raped and injured by a high-ranked and much valued police chief who made a psychopathic career as an ambassador for women’s rights while he was debasing young women at an industrious pace. (He was released from jail after just four years.) In this documentary you hear Nora being reprimanded for drinking her Coke out of the can instead from a glass, and how she is denied a female psychiatrist as some kind of punishment. You hear an intelligent and well-spoken girl who is trying to reason with a bunch of pathologically toxic professionals, whose goal is to punish a young patient who has been badly traumatised in life. When she doesn’t “behave” she is belted. Nora tells Velasco that, “For me it is always associated with when I was strapped and raped.”

Anna’s work was the extra push that we needed,” says Ing-Marie Wieselgren, psychiatrist and national coordinator in mental healthcare issues, in the Skandal! programme. “There are about two hundred wards around the country that have been in an improvement stage with the goal of reducing the number of compulsory treatments. In eight months it has been possible to halve them. Our actions have demonstrated that Anna was right. This needed to be discussed and come to light.” Odell was found guilty of barratry and violent resistance at the trial in August 2009. The fine was €265. She also had to pay two euros for the medicine.

Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry mention the psychologist Heinz Leymann (who worked in Sweden) and how he “captured the distortion involved in interpreting resistance to perceived injustice as psychopathological. In pointing out this distortion, Leymann shed light on the fact that one of the only means left for mobbing victims to act autonomously and retain some semblance of dignity was through acts of protest and resistance. Unfortunately, as Leymann also pointed out, such protests was typically restoried as simply more evidence of the victim’s instability.”

The school bullying of the sweet and innocent Alejandra in Mexican director Michel Franco’s excellent drama After Lucia (2012) is so merciless and tribal that it darkens the original darkness of the story about the bereavement after the mother’s death in a car crash. In a film at the Jämtli Museum in Östersund in the spring of 2013, Odell was seen smashing up old school furniture, the physical remains of the chairs and the desks were spread across the floor in the museum. She also showed an arrangement of torn images that had been stitched together with a red thread, and what she says is that when something is repaired it may become stronger. Look at Odell, however vast the darkness she supplies her own light.

Not everyone grows up to be cowboys. Some grow up to be astronauts.

© Tri Art (triart.se). Photo: Felix Odell.