Olivia was a sunny five-year old girl who just happened to have very aggressive rare form of brain cancer. Her mother Daphne, eight-year old sister Lilly, eleven-year-old brother Espen and father Holger were hit beyond words. Their only goal was to save Olivia’s life.
It took nine months of intense treatment before she was officially in remission. The next day started with hope and normalcy. Holger kissed Daphne goodbye at the door, “I’ll be back.” He went to play badminton at the children’s school where he worked but never returned. He died that evening unexpectedly of cardiac arrest on the gym floor. A family of five became suddenly a family of four.
They could only keep going. Olivia’s biggest wish was to have a normal life without cancer defining her childhood. Seven cancer-free months later, her MRI’s showed the tumor was back again. In the years to follow, her mother, doctors, close friends and even strangers did everything in their power to save her but they couldn’t.
Olivia passed away shortly after her ninth birthday. It was now a family of three. Daphne had to stay strong for her two children who had lost just as much as she did.
A year after Olivia’s passing, Daphne feels compelled to find a life that is not based on pain and being lost in loss. Voices tell her to let go and move on.
Her response is, “Let go of what?” She gathers up over 50 of Olivia’s favorite Barbie’s to embark on a unique and emotional journey closely documenting her individual exploration of trauma. She instinctually chooses to revisit the exact places of the last spontaneous road trip she took with her children after the doctors told her that Olivia didn’t have much time left to live.
Venturing into diverse landscapes from Las Vegas to desert mountains trigger a juxtaposition of extreme good and bad memories. In confronting the pain of losing Olivia, Daphne creates her own individual visceral vocabulary of mourning and reveals to the audience her deepest dilemmas as she is untangling the trauma in her own unorthodox way.
The fragments of past and present melt together on this incredible journey interweaving a portrait of this loving family throughout the years as they were fighting for Olivia’s life. Aspects about death and dying, which people usually keep secret even to themselves, come to the surface.
Daphne heads towards the direction of leaving the world of cancer and dying behind. In this process, she discovers a new life for her children and herself with Olivia still in it. Keeping Olivia becomes more of an inspiring survival story about a mother’s approach to healing rather than just a painful traumatic memory.
To be honest with you, the director’s statement drives me crazy!!! I’ve become aware how much I must write the word “I.” This statement has changed form a thousand times so bare with me if you can.
The reasons “why” we do “things” is so complicatedly dynamic. When I do the things I do, I only figure out the “why,” if at all, way later down the road. So on that note, there has been so many people and events in my life that have inspired me.
I don’t want to sound arrogant, however, ever since I was a little kid I was extremely observant. I watched my parents like a hawk trying to figure out what the hell they doing and why they were doing it. I noticed things like my Mom calling my Dad to open jars every-single time. I had the feeling she could open them herself. He opened them always, his chest a bit proud puffed out because only he could do this.
They both looked happy, that was their ritual. I noticed so much art in the “everyday” and this fascinated me. I also noticed my Aunt Martha who had down-syndrome. I identified myself very closely to her sometimes. I mean this in no way condescending or sarcastic. She seemed happy and genuine simply being Martha. She broke social rules by being herself inadvertently and intentionally somehow. She lived in her own world as I watched her sitting there arguing or talking to herself rocking away in that rocking chair. I did that too occasionally, without the rocking chair, so this made me feel not so weird.
I too lived in a part time dream world which I took everywhere. In my dreamworld I was free. I told stories to myself like kids do and lived inside these stories often. As I got older, the imagination dream world saved me during the hardest of times throughout my life. One element added to this was a pressure in me to express what I observed which moved me, outside my head and into the world again.
Eventually, this process evolved into a desire to make films. Ironically enough, the first documentary I tried to make was with my friend Alexia. I think I was about eight or so. We tried to make a slide show with plastic over a flashlight about breast cancer. My mom’s Aunt had no breasts and that bothered me. I had to say something about this and contemplate cancer.
Nine months after Olivia passed, I had to finally act on what was always in my heart and head. I needed to let that dream world expose itself and see what would happen. I had to push myself out of an emotional shock pain world which I was lost in.
I left my home and friends in Milan, Italy and the place where Olivia and Holger, my husband had lived and died. I ran to New York, with my kids Espen 15 and Lilly 13, took only a few suitcases and stared a one-year documentary filmmaking program. I couldn’t make just any film, it needed to be genuinely where my heart and passion was.
I had to start with Olivia and the experience my little big family endured. It was an inescapable fact, I had to attack the darkest pain one could imagine after two very huge losses. This decision led me to document the first stages in an attempt to survive. What began as a thesis film, Road to Zion, grew into what is now Keeping Olivia.
I believe I’m making this film for so many layers of reasons. One reason for sure is out of complete and utter love for my children Olivia, Espen and Lilly and my husband Holger! It’s a form of keeping Olivia and Holger with us. It might sound strange but it’s also dedicated to all those who have given us enormous amounts of love, help and support throughout the hardest of times. Without these people, I would not be able to be.
“You have to move on and let go.” These words haunted me. I thought, “How do you even begin to “Let go?” “What am I supposed to let go of?” For me, the letting go question was absurd, however, it inspired me to ask more relevant questions such as, “What do I do with all the pain I feel?” or “How do I now survive without landing in a mental home?” or “How do I find Olivia again?” I lived in a deep post cancer and death trauma fog.
At the same time I had to function and pretend to be what people expected me to be, strong. I cried and still cry a lot and that helps me be balanced. I still tried to force myself into those five famous stages of grief, yet with Olivia’s very slow passing and Holger’s very abrupt disappearance, I had 10 stages of grief and those in no order. I was searching for some outside model to have this all make sense. I found no text book meaning.
My relationship to God was also called into question to be honest with you. There was no one thing that would make the pain go away. I had to accept that I was like this. I had to accept that Olivia and Holger were gone but just physically. To survive meant that I had to go down all possible path ways (some very self- destructive) before finding the ones that suited me for that moment.
The more I suppressed the whole experience, the worse the pain became. It was clear that the answer to all this was that I had to find my own way. Mind you, this is all happening where there are no words to describe what goes on in mourning person’s mind. My words at first were images and music.
At film school I had a tendency to make surreal music video type pieces within my work which was as close as I could get to articulate the pain of losing half my family. By looking behind the images which were triggers, I found a way into the trauma at first with Olivia. I realized the traumatic bad had become one with the beautiful good memories almost canceling them both out. If I didn’t separate the two, then the pain was all I could feel.
I’m really sad writing this, but Olivia was not the only child in the world who had to go though cancer, dying and death. Many families out there know exactly what I’m talking about. When I’v been at my lowest and heard or seen how other people dealt with their trauma, it gave me huge amounts of strength to find my own way.
I feel it’s part of my responsibility to offer these families a sense of solidarity by speaking a language they identify with. How we try to heal ultimately is a very individual personal matter complicated by a full spectrum of emotions and diverse experiences. I always have the sense I don’t fit into society. How we “should” be I couldn’t and can’t be.
I realize now, that that’s fine, that there is no “should.” To loosen up the word “should” I’d like to transform the way we deal with these kinds of trauma into something less ominous and into something more approachable. I’d like to work on melting away the taboo associated with children’s cancer and dying. In my opinion, we are quite alienated from what death and dying really mean. We see so many people killed and dying on TV, in films and on the news but in terms to real mortality we have little actual information out there that could prepare us when we lose people.