Review: Songs of Earth
- Margreth Olin's film puts big-budget nature documentaries to shame with its visuals, music and sound, but gets its point across through the finely developed family through line
Having just world-premiered at CPH:DOX, at first glance, Songs of Earth seems like a high-concept film: directed by the acclaimed Margreth Olin, and executive-produced by Wim Wenders and Liv Ullmann, it puts breathtaking footage of the majestic Oldedalen valley in Western Norway side by side with the story of the director's parents, who are nearing the end of their lives. The environmental parallel is clear, but it is the family through line that offers a beautiful, intimate aspect that lifts the film above the concept.
The documentary is split into chapters that correspond with the seasons, but before we go into the first spring, Olin offers gratitude to her parents, Jørgen and Magnhild, for always being there for her, in their house overlooking one of Norway's longest fjords. A central aspect of the doc is their relationship to life, and their awareness of it coming to an end. Both Mum and Dad are in great shape, but there is no escaping age, and the director gently nudges them towards those thoughts that they discuss with tranquillity and gentleness. One can tell that these two people are happy and grateful.
Then we go out with Jørgen and Margreth, and the incredible images of the mountains, the fjord and Europe's largest inland glacier, a lot of them filmed aerially, alternate to the sweeping score composed by Rebekka Karijord and performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra. The music even seems to derive its sound from the roaring of waterfalls, the wind whistling through a cave or ice creaking. On top of that, Jørgen and Magnhild recite and sing old folk songs dedicated to nature, and Dad reminisces about the past.
His memories pepper, rather than fill, the film, letting nature speak for itself, and they correspond with the changing seasons. In spring, he says he was born with his feet pointing the wrong way, and that it took therapy throughout the first two years of his life and surgery to fix them. “They haven't stopped walking since,” he says. In summer, he speaks of one of the film's central images: a huge spruce tree that his grandfather planted more than 130 years ago. This is where the parents briefly but lovingly relate how they felt about each other 55 years ago.
But the wilds of nature can be very dangerous, and in the first half of the 20th century, parts of the Ramnefjellet mountain collapsed twice in the space of 30 years, taking many lives, including those of some of Dad's extended family. The remoteness of the region also meant that illnesses posed a more serious threat, and Jørgen tells us how a group of six people had to carry him as a boy over frozen snow for nine hours to a hospital because of his appendicitis.
In several instances, Olin and editor Michal Leszczyslowski compare nature to the human body: the beating of the jugular is counterpointed with abundant summer waterfalls, detail shots of lines in the skin are positioned next to images of large sheets of ice settling. The message is clear, with no need to mention the words “environment” or “climate change”: it is enough that Magnhild relates how sad she is that the glacier is retreating.
Even if the visuals, sound design and score are more impressive than in any big-budget nature documentary, it is the finely developed personal dimension that brings out the meaning and the message of the film, which is made all the more poignant by the carefully devised tone and balance in the directorial approach.
Songs of Earth is a co-production by Norway's Speranza Film AS, and broadcasters BBC, SWR and ARTE. Cinephil has the international rights.
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