Filmmaker talks Elan School, documentary at Great Falls Forum

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Filmmaker Todd Nilssen talks about the film he made about the former Elan School in Poland during Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library.

LEWISTON — Todd Nilssen was 17 when he was taken from his New York home by people he didn’t know and forced into the Elan School in Poland.

He probably wasn’t the best son back then, he admitted. He’d been abusing drugs and was headed down “a bad road.” But was the controversial school for troubled teens — known for years for staff-encouraged beatings by other students, public humiliation and verbal “attack therapy” — really the answer?

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“I don’t know,” he told a crowd at the Great Falls Forum on Thursday. “But the fact is, there were kids who had no business being treated under Elan’s formula.” 

Nilssen, now 29 and a film editor and filmmaker, explores “Elan’s formula” in a new documentary, “The Last Stop.”

The film will debut at the Emerge Film Festival in Lewiston on Friday.

On Thursday, Nilssen showed a trailer for the film and spoke to more than two dozen people at the Lewiston Public Library as a speaker for the Great Falls Forum.

“Some people say Elan was an abusive hellhole,” Nilssen said. “Some people have said Elan saved their life. I tend to take the middle ground and say it was both.”

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. Maine State Police recently closed an investigation into the 1982 death of an Elan student who witnesses say was subjected to a forced fight because he’d complained of a headache. He died the next day.

Elan was founded by psychiatrist Gerald Davidson and businessman Joseph Ricci, who was better known in later years as the outspoken owner of the Scarborough Downs racetrack and a candidate for governor.

Elan closed its doors in 2011 after declining enrollment and a dogged online campaign by former students determined to shut it down. Both Davidson and Ricci had died years earlier.

Nilssen 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 said he “saw how affected people were.”

“The story of Elan is versatile,” he told the crowd. “My goal with my film was to capture maybe a small part of it and to let people like you who don’t really know much about the school, people in general that don’t really know much about the school, to get a small insight.”

Halfway through his presentation, Nilssen invited another former Elan student, Mark Babitz, to speak about his experience. Babitz has been an ardent and outspoken opponent of the school, its founders and their tactics in treating troubled kids, and he was one of the online leaders who pushed the school to close.

“What Elan did to a lot of people is it took the weaker people, the people with less internal defenses, and it screwed them up for good,” he said.

Babitz attended Elan in the 1970s, one of the teens who came from out of state. In 1975, he said, he was one of nearly a dozen kids who were removed from Elan by the state of Illinois because of concerns about abuse there.

“This is not my documentary,” Babitz said. “The only affiliation I have with this documentary is documents and information. But it’s important to me, too, that people see this stuff.” 

Nilssen’s documentary was recently added to the Emerge Film Festival schedule for showing at 12:30 p.m. Friday at The Dolard & Priscilla Gendron Franco Center at 46 Cedar St. Tickets are $10 at the door. It’s also included in the festival’s all-access and matinee passes.

The film will also be shown at 8 p.m. Saturday at Clark’s Pond Cinemagic in South Portland. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased online at TNfilms.ticketleap.com.

ltice@sunjournal.com

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