How to engage with victims? All That I Am // Verzió X ELTE

The topic of children’s sexual abuse (CSA) is especially sensitive and often hazy when it comes to its media representation. Besides the fact that many abuse-cases never appear in the media, those that do, are often particularly violent or bizarre, where good and bad roles can clearly be defined. These particular cases rarely put CSA in perspective by offering a wider overview of the problem. As Anne M. Nurse, American sociologist mentions, in dominant media representation applies the image of the ”imperiled child”, which means that children are represented as victims in television news more than in any other role.

On the other hand film – especially documentary film – has the ability of showing a particular story by expanding its narrative to reflect on the general problem and it’s context. Films also are able to place the victim’s personal role in a truthful and complex form of narrative, where they are not simplified to imperiled, petious children. Many fictional and documentary movies focus on the victim’s personal story, such as Tone Grøttjord-Glenne’s human rights documentary All That I Am (Alt det jeg er).

The film follows Emilie who is now 18 and wants to start her adult life but she carries the trauma of childhood sexual abuse comitted by her own stepfather. Julia C. Davidson, American criminologist mentions that „any definition of what constitutes child sexual abuse must encompass the victim’s perspective in recognising that sexual abuse can, and often does, damage children”. All That I Am indeed focuses on the victim’s perspective and on the the real trauma that still haunts Emilie, but it does it in a very discrete, in fact minimalistic way. So the question arises: how does the documentary’s representation mode shape the spectator’s identification and engagement with the protagonist and the story of the film?

The spectator in the case of a documentary like All That I Am – in contrast to fictional films – does not question the credibility of the story. Even at the beginning of the movie, we have to accept the fact that this story is particularly unsettling, because we follow the life of the actual traumatized victim. The directorial decision to focus on the person affected by the abuse is not unusual among human rights documentaries, this is the type that Daan Bronkhorst calls the Testimonial Documentary (quoted by Barry Collins). In this case it helps the spectators to identify with the protagonist and the problem, which is supported here with some distinctive stylistic solutions.

The use of close-ups and the fact that the we bearly see anything that has no connection with Emilie – as the camera is following her everywhere – makes the identification really obvious. In some cases (for example at the beginning, in the trial scene) we as viewers have no other choice but to watch and observe Emilie’s small physical reactions and facial expressions as she sits in silence. The film does not use direct interviews with Emilie or her monologues, we just follow her life, sometimes even in a bit staged or unnatural framework. However it creates a really interesting connection between the spectator and the subject, because we often have to find out what has not been said by her, therefore we do empathise (maybe even unconsciously) with Emilie. This is a very simple way of bringing the character emotionally closer to the audience.

All That I Am

Other than that obviously Emilie’s personality and the way she talks about her feelings and insecurities draws the viewer’s empathy too, which is supported by the narrative, too. According to Barry Collins every type of documentary wants to engage the viewer in different ways, so narrative has a really important role, as „a story must be told”. All That I Am tells the coming-of-age story of Emilie, her steps toward adulthood, so her ”mission” – besides finding a profession – is to clarify the painful past in the family, by telling her little siblings the truth, which she succeeds at in the end of the film. The kind of ”coming-of-age narrative” also helps the spectator’s engagement, and as we see the girl’s isolation and her enviroment’s rejection and lack of deep understanding, we feel emotinally more connected to her. The culmination of this emotional solidarity or empathy is the scene when Emilie breaks down in the middle of a meeting with the counselors.

On the other hand, this representation of the victim’s perspective has its limits and problems as well. Focusing only on Emilie might engage the viewer with the story but the one-sided representation does not reveal a broader context of CSA. For example the relationships in the family and friends are not fully clear for the spectator, which makes it hard to understand the whole drama and its outcome between the members. However the mother has her own moment when she confesses about her own sufferings as the wife of an abuser, which also strikes the viewer very hard, as until then she seemed isolated from her daughter and the trauma she carries. But because of the exclusive narrative focus on the victim, the film does not represent the side of the offender (who is actually a family member) and the side of the outsiders, who also want to help Emilie, but don’t know how to do it in an effective way. The instituitional repsonsibility comes up with the depicted care system with the counselors, but the victim-driven narrative does not let us see and know how this system really works in Norwegia, what role they play in such cases – and also how did they help the girl in the previous years.

All That I Am is about a really important, sensitive and rarely represented problem, and uses a very personal, almost subjective tone; the focus to the victim’s narrative is able to engage the spectator emotionally. The viewer’s position can also be described with Sonia Tascon’s “saviour-spectator” expression, which is enabled through the depicted „passive victim” figure who is usually disabled from acting against the troubles she/he faces. In this case we follow Emilie’s struggle to become an active adult, but we also remain in the saviour-sympathizing role. Moreover, the one-sided representation of the victim does not give a complex view on the topic of child sexual abuse, which may leave the viewer with a sense of lack.


Collins, Barry: Human Rights Cinema: The Act of Killing and the Act of Watching. No Foundations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Law and Justice 14 (2017). pp. 65–83.

Davidson, Julia C.: Child Sexual Abuse: Media Representations and Government Reactions. New York: Routldge, 2008.

Nurse, Anne M.: Confronting Child Sexual Abuse: Knowledge to Action. Lever Press, 2020. pp. 37–39.

Tascon, Sonia M.: Watching Others' Troubles: Revisiting 'The Film Act' and Spectatorship in Activist Film Festivals. In: Tascon, Sonia – Wils, Tyson (eds.): Activist Film Festivals: Towards a Political Subject. Intellect Books, 2016. pp. 21–37.


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ELTE Film Studies