LEWISTON — For two hours Friday afternoon, Todd Nilssen stood in the back of the The Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center’s screening room and watched people watch his film.
It was the first showing of “The Last Stop,” Nilssen’s just-finished documentary about the controversial Elan School for troubled teenagers in Poland. He was stressed, nervous.
But then: applause.
And more applause.
And strangers coming up and shaking his hand, fighting back tears, telling him they never knew Elan was so horrifying — “a demonic place,” one man called it. They were shocked.
It was the reaction Nilssen had hoped for.
“Nobody knew it was going on,” he said. “That’s why I thought it was such a good subject for a documentary. Nobody knows that these places exist.”
The film kicked off the second day of the Emerge Film Festival, a three-day Lewiston-Auburn event dedicated to independent films. Although it was a last-minute addition, the Elan documentary drew a crowd of about 50 people.
Elan was a private boarding school that operated between 1970 and 2011. Students, many from outside Maine, were typically sent there by courts, the foster care system or parents. By the time it closed in 2011, Elan was charging nearly $55,000 a year per student.
Over the years, the school was known for deploying such controversial tactics as forced boxing, physical punishments and screaming confrontations. Founders Gerald Davidson, a psychiatrist, and Joseph Ricci, a businessman, publicly touted staff-encouraged beatings by other students, public humiliation and verbal “attack therapy.”
Elan closed its doors in 2011 after declining enrollment and a dogged online campaign by former students determined to shut it down.
The two-hour film featured interviews with former Elan students and staff intercut with footage from a 1980s TV news expose on the school and re-enactments of students’ stories of abuse. It led viewers from Elan’s 1970 founding, through the school’s philosophy and into the daily experiences of students — including some who had been abused at home, or had mental illnesses or autism.
The film ended with a look at how Elan’s now-adult students have fared. All of those interviewed said that after they left Elan they became addicted to drugs, got in trouble with the law, tried to kill themselves, had trouble functioning in normal social situations or struggled with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I have night terrors,” one former student said in the film. “Most of the time I’m dreaming about Elan.”
Nilssen, 29, attended Elan between 2005 and 2007 when there were about 200 students there. By then, some of the school’s controversial tactics had changed, but not all.
Nilssen, a New York film editor, spent three years making “The Last Stop.” He dedicated it to “all the kids who took the ride down No. 5 Road,” the Poland dirt road where Elan was headquartered.
After the showing Friday afternoon, seven former Elan students took to the stage to talk about their experiences and answer questions. Two cried as they spoke.
“I can’t believe this stuff happened to people,” said former student Matt Hoffman, choking back tears. “This place was not therapeutic. This place was not a school. This place was certainly not a place you ever wanted to be sent to. There were people who wanted to be sent to prison rather than stay in that place.”
Some audience members said they knew of Elan only because, in later years, its track team competed against school teams in the area. Others said they knew of Elan’s history because of Sun Journal stories about a 15-year-old Elan student who died after being forced to box other students. Many hadn’t known much about the school at all.
“This is a very powerful presentation. In order to honor these students and the many that were at Elan, how are you going to roll it out to every state so they all see it?” one woman asked Nilssen.
Nilssen said he hopes to show “The Last Stop” at other film festivals around the country and, ultimately, distribute it nationwide.
In the meantime, its second showing will be 8 p.m. Saturday at Clark’s Pond Cinemagic in South Portland. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased online at TNfilms.ticketleap.com.
After two hours of anxious watching Friday, Nilssen was happy with the film’s debut.
“I think it came out well,” he said.
Filmmaker Rob Little, who has a film being shown at the Emerge Film Festival, works on preparing another filmmakers’ project for screening at the Franco Center in Lewiston on Friday afternoon. He is the technical director for the festival.
Jen Rioux, of Auburn, right, watches the drama unfold during the screening of “The Last Stop” at the Franco Center in Lewiston on Friday afternoon.
People watch “The Last Stop,” a movie about the Elan School in Poland at the Emerge Film Festival in the lower level of the Franco Center in Lewiston on Friday afternoon.
Moviegoers watch a film entitled “Johnny Physical Lives” during Friday’s screening at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Emerge Film Festival