Vägra Döda

Summary from bookrelease at Filmform, Stockholm

Book release: Direct award contracts for a short film about medical age assessment

The publication Direct award contracts for a short film about medical age assessment, was released on the 5th of September at Filmform on Kungsholmen, Stockholm. In this book, the project leaders and the artists Carl Johan Erikson and Björn Larsson have compiled public documents that concern the public procurement and production of a “Short film about medical age assessment”, ordered by Rättsmedicinalverket[1] (RMV) in November 2016 and completed in the winter of 2017. The film is available on Youtube, Vimeo as well as on the web site of RMV. Rikard Heberling is responsible for the design and layout of the book.

After an introduction by Björn and Carl Johan, as well as a screening of the film (3.33 minutes), three invited guests each participated with commentaries: Annika Wik who works with research and knowledge development within film and contemporary art, artist Antonie Frank Grahamsdaughter, as well as paediatrician and associate professor in paediatrics and human rights activist Henry Ascher. The event concluded with a joint conversation with the audience that consisted of just over thirty people.

Björn and Carl Johan described how discoveries within their on-going artistic research project Vägra döda – historier om de vapenfria männen (Refuse to Kill – Stories of the Conscientious Objectors) have brought to surface linkages to the current and much debated medical procedure for age assessment of young refugees. Within this procedure, various measurements of the body take place, just as they did within the history and mechanisms of registration and screening for military services. Within the framework of the project, an exhibition was held earlier in the year at the gallery Tegen2, where a borrowed “muscle chair” was on display. During 1966-1992, the chair was used to collect large amounts of body data. During the registration and screening, character data was also collected in pertinence to e.g. military service or non-combatant service. Carl Johan described working with the book as “looking at a detail in order to hopefully see a larger structure”.

The conversation came to focus a lot on RMV’s public information film and how the film’s production company has coded it in a more or less conscious way. Annika Wik paid attention to several “important signs” in relation to the production of the film and how a more developed rendering could have been applied in the choosing of images in relation to perspectives of representation. She also addressed questions to the project leaders regarding the establishing of the table of contents of the public records and how the anonymous crossing-outs in the book are not entirely indecipherable. Antonie Frank pointed toward examples where different attributes are used to orchestrate a whitewash and therefore ”… transform the others into our own images”. She mentioned e.g. how stereotypically the non- European visually coded teenagers photograph one another, flirt, scribble in school books, and that: “…framing our own culture, these people are already transformed in the film”. The film expresses power and paternalism even though this may not have been the intention. Antonie presented corresponding film clips from 1950’s Canada where indigenous peoples of North America are encouraged to become farmers. She also referred to her own work where, for the last three years, she has been working with young unaccompanied refugees. Henry Asher held a short informative presentation about the methods for medical age assessment and why he, together with several forensic doctors, cannot find any ethical justifiable cause for participating in RMV’s methods for age assessment: “using skeletal and dental x-rays for age assessment is not like counting growth rings on a tree”. He recounted how e.g. disease, absence of wisdom teeth and ethnic variations influence the results as well as the impossibility to conduct an MRI-scan if there is metal in the body. He also demonstrated how the interpretations of the statistical data are filled with uncertainties. Considering that Migrationsverket (The Swedish Migration Agency) has contracted private parties for age assessment, the principle of public access to official documents (“offentlighetsprincipen” in Swedish) ceases and insight into the methods are made impossible. Henry refers to Cinderella in regards to the appointed ´18-year olds´ that overnight come to lose their rights, accommodation and trustees. Following the examinations, self-harm sometimes occurs amongst the already traumatised teenagers. However, due to an administrative technicality, no statistical data is being collected since the procedure of age assessment is considered to be an exercise of public authority rather than a medical procedure. Henry also informed how Svenska Barnläkarföreningen (The Swedish Paediatric Society) is working towards bringing about a change.

A few questions from the audience touched upon whether or not there is any authority responsible for following up on how other authorities undertake their assignments, e.g. in the development of public information films. Someone put forward that perhaps the film serves its intended purpose even though its implementation may be criticized. Annika mentioned the concept MIL (media and information literacy) and commented concerning film and imagery: “ It is easy to convert the issue to technical skills when it is really about content. The general competence within film and media needs to be raised, in order to improve the understanding of images, and not to believe that it only applies to text. This need also applies to the public procurers ”. The conversation evolved into a discussion about professional ethics and the codes of which doctors around the world have agreed upon since World War II. A question arose whether it is possible for filmmakers or artists in general to agree upon an equivalent code of ethics for the application of their knowledge and awareness within representation? Gratitude was expressed during the conversation of the Swedish principle of public access to official documents that establishes a control mechanism for democratic processes.

/Brief: Åsa Andersson 2018-09-14


Vägra Döda – historier om de vapenfria männen (Refuse to Kill – Stories of the Conscientious Objectors) is financed by Vetenskapsrådet (Swedish Research Council) 2017-2019 and placed at Kungliga Konsthögskolan in Stockholm (The Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm).


[1] The National Board of Forensic Medicine Sweden