Picked up last week by Latido Films in what was reportedly a competitive bidding situation, Fred Baillif’s third fiction feature “The Fam” won this morning the coveted Berlinale Generation 14Plus Grand Prix.

A heart aching examination of the juvenile care system, it plows a blurred line between documentary and fiction. Baillif, a former social worker himself, teases remarkable performances out of a cast given they are natural actors who live at a Geneva care home working with them over two years.

The result is a deeply empathetic observation that embraces without flinching the raw emotion of its characters, threading a frightening statement on sexual abuse.

Produced by Freshprod and RTS, in collaboration with Luna Films and Freestudios, the film follows a group of teenagers forced by circumstance to live together. This makeshift family to which the title alludes suddenly suffers an incident whose chain reaction erodes the dynamics of the foster home, revealing the frailty of the care home’s structure.

Variety talked with Baillif as Latido took international rights on “The Fam.”

As the film unfolds it becomes clear that most of these women are attempting to come to terms with sexual abuse. Why and how did you approach this theme and what did you learn from that process? 

I wanted to approach the subject of sexual abuse because it’s a major taboo. It’s a huge problem that we barely talk about. The numbers are not right, we don’t know exactly how many victims there are everyday. The idea of talking about this came from meeting women who told me about their experience, about being abused by their uncle, father, or grandparent. I gathered a lot of information and what is seen in the movie about sexual abuse comes from the testimonies that I got. I learned that in sexual abuse the problem is not only the abuser, the major problem is the accomplices, those who know and do nothing, the mother, the grandmother, the uncle, whoever it is. Because it usually happens inside the family. All the women I met in the beginning of the process always came to that point, Why didn’t my mother say anything? Why, when I talked about it, my aunt told me I should shut up because I’d destroyed her relationship? Why did my brother not say anything even if he knew, even if he was there?

The film’s documentary-like nature comes via hand-held camerawork that observes naturalistic, raw interpretations. What was the process of working with natural actors? 

We spent about two years on improvisation workshops with very few rules. My wife and children often accompanied me to the home to stay in touch with the girls, open up about who we are and develop a real relationship. We shot the movie without any budget because we couldn’t wait: The girls were growing up and we based it on what we’d done before. The whole process was first to interview each of them, asking one simple question, “What is your tragedy?” Based on that, we transformed reality into fiction, together. Each of the girls had the task of making their own story, some of them I didn’t even know, I learned them when shooting. I wanted them to really own their own story. So it’s real, so nobody’s expecting it. Nobody knew the script that I’d written.

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‘The Fam’ Credit: Joseph Areddy

At first sight, the story’s structure works like a kind of “Rashomon” yet it’s subtly more complex. Present and past are interwoven into a story that plumbs the emotional states of its characters. Could you comment? 

The title of the movie, “La Mif,” comes from French slang. We reverse words so “Famille” is “Mifa,” reversed. That’s slang, Verlan. And that tells you a lot about the structure of the movie. It makes sense to me that it reads backwards, that’s how they refer to the foster home where they live. I was always very intrigued by that. How come? What do you mean by that? Is it ironic? It’s by the way. And then when editing, I wrote the movie like this, I wanted to create chapters and always come back to one point, a key scene. But the movie didn’t quite work so I decided to use many scenes instead. That’s because the improvisation changed the script so much that we had to adapt in editing. It was a puzzle, include this, take that out. I had 35 versions.

Your film questions the infrastructure of the juvenile system, pointing out the quandary in which social workers often find themselves – and the emotional burden that entails. As a social worker yourself what was your experience coming back to this? Has something changed? 

I studied social work in 1997. At the time, teachers kept talking about maintaining “professional distance.” For me that was always a problem. This is exactly why as a filmmaker I refuse to keep a professional distance with the people I work with. You need love, especially in the situation these girls find themselves in. The system is about protection, this is why I kept telling them to talk about protection because that’s what they’ve been told so many times: They need to be protected.

We need protection so much that we are denied freedom. It’s the same system. They’re obsessed by protection so forget what’s most important thing, love. Love is what they need the most, I believe that and I always did when I was a social worker. I talked with social workers and it comes down to this: In their work they’re not allowed to love the kids they work with. That’s a big problem.

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‘The Fam’ Credit: Joseph Areddy/Latido Films