Burn is a downer

Film review

John Smistad
Olympia, Wash.

Burn the Place you Hide

Cover: Burn the Place you Hide

Burn the Place you Hide is an overlong investigation of the life and career of Norwegian singer/songwriter Thomas Hansen, known to his eclectic fans as “St. Thomas.” Hansen’s songs all sound the same, with the lyrics literally expressing whatever flows in his distorted stream of consciousness as he writes them.

Hansen fought an incapacitating battle with mental illness, drug addiction, and alcohol. And if this documentary is any indication, all those in a position to help the unstable musician only continued to enable and exploit him.

Richard Knights wrote and directed Burn the Place you Hide. I recently interviewed him about his film.

John Smistad: This is not an easy watch. What do you want us to take away from Burn the Place you Hide?

Richard Knights: I hadn’t really thought of it like that; maybe aspects of the film are challenging, or perhaps uncomfortable is a better word, because there’s a level of emotional honesty we’re not used to. There’s certainly no shying away from what are ostensibly quite difficult subjects. For me personally, it’s more cathartic than uncomfortable. Small talk, now that’s difficult.
The interesting thing about Thomas is the lack of filter between his life and his art. It’s as rare as it is heartbreaking, because “singing honestly from the heart” is something you don’t see very often anymore. All his songs are tethered to a personal “truth.” He was a dangerously honest man, raging at what he saw as the comfortable façade of civility that we all hide behind. I hope his anger and courage inspires people, reminds them that we’re all traveling through the same human experience. I hope it’s an emotional and empathetic ride.

JS: There are so many who could have helped Thomas in his life but did little or nothing in this regard. This was not pursued in your film. Why?

RK: Firstly, I think there’s an assumption that everything or everyone can be “fixed” these days, and I don’t think that’s the case. Short of detaining people indefinitely, or 24-hour surveillance, what are the options? You can offer them treatment, but what if that doesn’t work or they refuse it? It’s a really nuanced problem. Of course, you could look at the specifics of the Norwegian mental health system and make judgments about the efficacy of his treatment, or the culpability of society as a whole for its failing in addressing mental-health issues, but that would have been a very different film.

Secondly, we didn’t want to define him by his illness. There’s a very gray area where the illness ends and the man begins, and I think some of the most interesting facets of Thomas lived in that area. We didn’t want to attribute this action to the man and that action to the illness because, in some ways, it felt reductive to him as a whole person. Aside from which, I honestly don’t think there’s a simple pop psychology explanation for the varied and complex mental-health issues he suffered from.

I don’t think his family or friends should feel a sense of guilt, although, as can be seen in the film, it’s obvious that some do feel that way. It’s impossible to foresee where the path would lead.

I often compare it to a bunch of parachutists throwing themselves from a plane: as you get closer to the ground people start peeling away and opening their own chutes, not because they’re necessarily “bad” people but because they have other things to consider, families, jobs, and the ground rushing towards them like that is pretty damn scary. Of course some people stay tethered to you until the moment of impact, but that’s because they have no other choice.

So, no, we didn’t actively pursue if, or how, some of the things that happened could have been prevented, because in all honesty it didn’t interest us, we didn’t want it to be an investigation. We wanted it to be a Boys’ Own Adventure.

On a separate note, I do think that the entertainment industry as a whole should do more to ensure that mental-health issues are recognized earlier and that artists aren’t put into vulnerable situations that exacerbate their condition.

JS: Norway is portrayed as pretty damn bleak. Intentional?

RK: Not at all. We love Norway.

We tried to stay away from cultural clichés as much as possible, especially as foreigners, but there’s obviously a kind of noir-ish visual aesthetic to Norway that’s difficult to avoid. And I guess like any country, underneath the sheen, there’s always going to be dirt.

Thankfully, the film was picked up by the main Norwegian broadcaster NRK and won Best Norwegian Film at the Natt og Dag awards, so hopefully we didn’t offend too many people with the portrayal.

I should add that making a film for a country whose language you don’t speak and worse still, making that film primarily in your own language, has been both humbling and slightly nerve wracking. Thomas made it easier for us. He sang in English and he often spoke in it. He perhaps did this so his voice could reach outside Norway. Hopefully what we’ve done, in some small way, is take that voice and echo it back. Hopefully, maybe even carry it a little further.

Burn the Place you Hide is accessible on Amazon Prime in the U.S. and Europe.

This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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