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Valley Vertigo: Documentary details controversial and experimental Élan School

Valley Vertigo: Documentary details controversial and experimental Élan School

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There are only a few things that really, truly frighten me. Among them are public speaking, those really big Japanese millipedes and World War I-era trench warfare.

Perhaps topping the list, though, is something most people may not even be aware of — the Élan School.

I recently spoke to Todd Nilssen, director of “The Last Stop,” a documentary that details the extreme conditions endured by some of the school’s students over its forty-year existence.

“That’s the common thing I hear — ‘I didn’t know this place existed.’ And that’s kind of the reaction I was looking for because no one really knows about these places,” he said. “Even after watching the film, you don’t get the feeling of what it’s like to be in a place like Élan unless you were there. I hope that the film does put that feeling forth so people can walk away with a little bit of the feeling of what it was like and that they will realize that these places exist.”

Élan was a private behavior modification program and therapeutic boarding located in the backwoods of Maine. The school opened in 1970, ultimately closing in 2011 amidst persistent abuse allegations dating back to its inception.

According to the documentary, making your way through the school’s program meant being constantly berated by the other students and being humiliated for breaking any number of rules, including taking longer than five minutes to eat dinner. Regularly, “general meetings” involved every student in the program taking their turn screaming at a perceived rule breaker.  

As detailed in the documentary, students would be made to wear hats made of used tampons. Other punishments included being tied to a chair, having a mixture of food, cigarette butts and human feces dumped on students’ heads, being made to sit in a corner for week at a time and the infamous “Ring,” wherein students would be pitted against each other in bloody fisticuffs.

There was a total lack of privacy in the school and the rules were enforced by other students, who upheld the law or faced their own harsh punishments.

Students were only able to speak with family members under supervision and were punished for speaking negatively of the school. Outgoing letters were made to be rewritten until approved by other students or faculty, many of whom were also graduates of the program.

Nilssen was forced to attend the school in the mid-2000s the same way most other students did — by being taken there in the middle of the night against their will.

“The act of getting torn out of your bed and thrown into a van by two big guys is probably one of the most violating things that’s ever happened in my life,” he said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”

The director made his way through the program in two years, sticking with it even past his 18th birthday. After graduating in 2007, he went to film school and didn’t think much about his time at Élan.

“I mostly forgot about Élan after leaving. I didn’t really think about it,” Nilssen said. “I just thought ‘OK, that’s what happen to kids that are bad,’ you know what I mean?”

And while the school’s program didn’t necessarily pervade  Nilssen’s  every-day life after graduating, he continued to be haunted by nightmares for a while and continues to have general feelings of distrust toward others.

“Something that I did leave with, that I think Élan did instill is the fact that I do have a lot of trouble trusting people,” he said. “We were taught not to. We were taught that everyone has an ulterior motive or is not being honest with you or not being forthcoming or that they lacked integrity. You were taught to expect the worst of people.”  

It was a years later that Nilssen got in contact with other former students via social media which led him to do research and conclude that Élan was anything but a normal teenage experience.

Nilssen felt that making a documentary could shed light on the hidden-in-plain-site institution, and the thousands like it, while also working through his own feelings about his experience.

The film follows up with a handful of Élan graduates, delving into their own stories of how they did or did not fit into the school’s rigid program, as well as the school’s history and founder Joe Ricci’s bizarre and flamboyant life.

Nilssen also plays it fair, not showing the school in a totally unfavorable light, as it features interviews with drug addicts who credit the school with their current sobriety and former faculty members who still believe in what they feel is an altruistic endeavor.

The documentary makes the case that the school, and others like, could operate in its own bubble for years due to lack of government oversite and the stigma surrounding mental illness and drug abuse, as many students referred to the program suffer from those afflictions.

“Parents, if their kid has a problem like that with mental illness or drug addiction, they don’t want their friends and their family to know about it. They keep that to themselves,” Nilssen said. “So parents will go online or go looking for ways to help their children and that’s where programs like this prey. They prey on parents that feel helpless.”

The documentary won for Best Feature Documentary at the 2017 Festival of Cinema NYC festival. It is currently available to buy on DVD or digitally via www.thelaststopfilm.com. Nilssen said the film will be available on other streaming platforms soon. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/thelaststopfilm.

Parker Bowman is the assistant editor of The Hanford Sentinel, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ Parker_THS or send an email to PBowman@HanfordSentinel.com

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