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Scenes from a bullying

Anna Odell's film The Reunion is an original approach to the well-worn ‘victim takes revenge on bully’ narrative.

Anna Odell, The Reunion, 2013. All rights reserved. Anna Odell, The Reunion, 2013. All rights reserved.The Reunion, a film by Swedish conceptual artist Anna Odell, is an original take on the well-worn ‘victim gets revenge on bully’ story. Though the film becomes slightly mired in its own narrative quirks and often tests our patience of its subject, it is nonetheless a thoughtful and unique look at the uncomfortable subject of bullying and its consequences for all involved.

The film is split into two unequal parts. The first concerns a 20-year reunion of Anna’s old high school class. Anna – now a controversial artist best known for faking a suicide attempt and enduring a stint in a Stockholm psychiatric hospital as a piece of 'performance art' – attends and uses the occasion to accuse her former classmates of tormenting her at school and making her childhood miserable. Needless to say, her classmates who were aloof to her presence at the reunion to begin with, react with bemusement, then defensiveness, and finally outright hostility.

The second part of the film tells us that this whole event was imagined. Anna was never invited to her high school reunion, and only found out about it after it had happened. Clearly still reeling from her high school experiences, she made this (short) film to imagine what it would be like if she had been there – “what were they all trying to avoid?”

She then calls up her old classmates to invite them to view the film and be interviewed – on camera. Though some do take up the first part of the offer, none agreed to be filmed (for reasons that by this time should be incredibly obvious), and thus what we have is a film of Anna’s own version of the interviews that took place about a film that may or may not reflect the reality of what could have been.

Removed from all possible objectivity, this is clearly a very personal film for Anna, whose performance art is not known for its modesty. Instead we get a unique look at bullying and how it continues to affect both the bully and the victim years later. The film’s first part is its most entertaining, in which doe-eyed Anna slowly ingratiates herself among her former peers before launching into a Festen-esque speech alleging that they mercilessly bullied and ignored her for years.

“But we were just kids back then,” come the incredulous replies, and yet Anna is quick to show how these bourgeois darlings are quick to fall back into the high school roles that defined them. Unable to confront her directly, they at first ignore her, then laugh at her, then disbelieve her, then try to “prank” her, before finally resorting to violence. It seems they never stopped being kids, and when taken outside of their comfort zone, their only recourse is violence and tribalism.

The film’s second part is slower and more measured as, one by one, her former 'bullies' are brought on to atone for their actions. We are of course relying entirely on Anna’s version of events here, but it is clear she is more interested in confrontation therapy than in objectivity. Each peer gives an excuse as to their high school behaviour, and as to why Anna was not invited. Each passes on responsibility to the next, none wanting to directly confront the issues at hand. Once again, “it was ages ago” is the excuse peddled out. That it has nothing to do with who they are now. But for Anna, it is clear that the past informs the present, and that her art is a reflection of the hurt that she still carries. What may be an ephemeral period for a bully can be a lifetime of pain for a victim.

Anna is not without criticism herself. Her performance in the first part of the film is almost a caricature, while she tests our sympathy for her through the relentless doorstepping of her former classmates. Yes, we can see she is still hurt by these memories, but does she go too far? Anna is self-aware enough to not portray herself as totally angelic. From her creepy, blinkless persona in the first part to her obsessive pursuit of closure in the second, she is often irritating and hard to empathise with and yet is still able to inspire reflection through her unorthodox approach to her story. There are even some hints as to her role as an unreliable narrator.

Are the bully/victim roles reversed by the end? That may be a stretch too far, but we are left with one plaintive truth: that in most cases of bullying no one – not the bully, nor the victim, nor the bystander – comes out well at the end.

Opens in select cinemas on 10 July.

About the author

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.

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