Ensnared by sex abuse paranoia

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The Hunt (MA). Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm,  Susse Wold. 116 minutes

This excellent Danish film is difficult to write about in the context of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. One of the most unpalatable aspects of such abuse cases, notably within the Catholic Church, is the way in which the word and wellbeing of perpetrators has seemed at times to be given precedence over those of their young victims. No one would doubt that the reverse should be true.

Yet on the surface The Hunt appears to be a cautionary tale about the consequences of vigilance succumbing to paranoia. It centres on small-town kindergarten teacher, Lucas (Mikkelsen), whose life falls apart after he is wrongfully accused of abusing a young female student. To the viewer he is clearly a victim of persecution, and yet his persecutors' actions are based simply on the fact that they have taken an alleged victim at her word.

Well, in a way. His 'accuser', Klara (Wedderkopp), is a sensitive and imaginative child, confused by the emotions of a pre-adolescent crush on her kind and handsome teacher. Her comments are first misconstrued and then blown out of proportion by genuinely concerned and well-meaning adults. She is the daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Larsen) and so gets a front seat view of the subsequent fallout in Lucas' life.

We are entirely sympathetic to Lucas, but also to Klara, who intended no harm, had no inkling of the damage she would set in motion and, once the destruction begins to unfold, is powerless to stop it; the adults in her life are as slow to accept her retractions as they were fast to accept her 'accusations'. The film is exceptional in its sensitive and nuanced treatment of Klara and her responses.

I have seen The Hunt twice — once at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival, and again at a recent media preview — and both times could not deny the outrage and sense of injustice felt on behalf of Lucas, and those few who are loyal and unlucky enough to stand by him (including his until-recently estranged teenage son, played by Fogelstrøm). What makes the film difficult though is that it is hard to apportion blame for the injustice.

After all, the town's adults are guilty only of wanting to protect their children. It is Lucas' senior colleague at the kindergarten, Grethe (Wold), who initially mistakes Klara's perturbation for post-abuse trauma, and she simply takes the situation seriously, as well she should. That said, the speed with which she begins to inform other parents of the allegations is questionable. They are, after all, the kind of allegations that stick like mud.

There is an excruciating scene early in the film in which a counsellor interviews Klara in Grethe's presence, and together these well-meaning adults lead the young girl to confirm the conclusion that they have clearly already reached. The picture that emerges is one of a denial of due process and natural justice for the innocent Lucas. The acts of implied and actual violence that he is subjected to as the film progresses reinforce this impression.

These are good reasons to feel outraged on Lucas' behalf. But given the nature of the crimes he is supposed to have committed, can we condemn his tormentors outright? Isn't child absue a crime that demands utmost vigilance? Isn't it right that a child's right to safety should be absolute, despite an adult's protestations of innocence? Isn't this one of the key lessons of the Church's abuse crisis? Few could disagree.

But there is a genuine ethical dilemma here that is explored with tremendous nuance and gravity and which gives great moral tension to this outstanding film. Rather than a cautionary tale perhaps The Hunt is best viewed as a tragedy; a sense of inevitability hangs over the proceedings, as if there is no other way that the events could have played out, for which only the very existence of the evil of child abuse in the world can be blamed. 


 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen, clergy sex abuse

 

 

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Existing comments

There was a tragedy a few years ago involving a young male teacher wrongly accused by two teenage female students, he committed suicide. Children - and teens and adults do have the right to be believed and to be protected, but part of that is forming them and their consciences in matters about respecting others and not making false accusations. It's interesting to hear a mother and father of two and three year olds beginning to form the consciences of these children in regards to the virtues, particularly of honesty.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 02 May 2013


Very fine, Tim. It struck me that the child's absolute right to safety also includes his/her right to mental safety - to protection of her mind from the failures of judgement, the failures in process, of adults who are attempting to protect her from sexual exploitation.
Joe Castley | 02 May 2013


Your headline - "ensnared by sex abuse paranoia" aptly describes the failure of this film maker to rise above the conventional- the oh so conventional violent story line designed to put bums on seats - prosaic dilemmas running amok How refreshing and unusual would be a story line that explored how the teacher could be pictured responding appropriately to the needs and wants of this young child; a circumstance and an opportunity faced by all fathers. A real challenge to a movie maker. It might even make the money this film is so obviously pursuing
frank hetherton | 02 May 2013


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