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“Is There an Orchestra Playing in the Depths of the Glacier?”: Margreth Olin on Her TIFF-Debuting Documentary, Songs of Earth

Songs of Earth

My DOX:AWARD top pick for the Ekko jury grid I participated in at this year’s CPH:DOX, Margreth Olin’s Songs of Earth, was also number one in my critic’s notebook for the doc most needing to be experienced on the big screen. In this palpably loving portrait of the veteran filmmaker’s elderly parents and the country that shaped them (and her), “Olin juxtaposes jaw-dropping, drone-captured images of the awe-inspiring Norwegian landscape with closeups of her dad’s bald pate, his tender hand on her mother’s back, as the environment and humankind become one” (per that notebook, and my coverage).

Thus, it comes as little surprise that Wim Wenders (Olin directed “The Oslo Opera House” segment for Cathedrals of Culture) and Norway’s cinema treasure Liv Ullmann are both credited as EPs. Or that the Toronto International Film Festival will be debuting the stunner on these shores. So to discuss all this and more — including the doc’s big screen soundtrack performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra — Filmmaker reached out to the human rights-focused director (26 honorary awards and counting) just prior to Songs of Earth’s September 13th premiere.

Filmmaker: One aspect that so impressed me back when I first caught Songs of Earth at CPH:DOX was how difficult this deceptively simple-seeming portrait of your aging parents against the backdrop of environmental change might have been to pull off. How did the concept for the doc originate, and how long did it take to get to final cut?

Olin: I have known for years that I wanted to make a film about our deep connection to nature, to remind us that nature is our home. I wanted to craft a love letter, and to open up an opportunity for the audience to “go into nature.” By going outside, we go in. We all carry the knowledge deep within us that we are a small part of a bigger whole, and within lies the answer to the biggest challenge of our time.

All life is connected, and nature has to be given a voice of its own, therefore the title Songs of Earth. What happens if we start to listen to the primordial forces that have shaped our landscapes? In the first sketches for the film I wrote “local and global,” “timely and timeless,” “personal and universal.” I then knew that I had to go home to my parents since they are deeply connected to the land and their ancestors.

My dad grew up in a valley where generations have lived in balance with nature to survive. In the battle between power (man) and the powerful (nature), the powerful wins. My dad has spent most of his spare time hiking the wild mountains where he lives. I wanted to make a film in which our cameras and sound equipment could capture and collect the gifts he sees and has always shared with me. During these past few years, however, I have also felt that time is limited, so I asked both my parents if they would be part of the film. My worst fear has always been to lose the two of them, so on a deeper level the making of this film is me trying to prepare for the inevitable.

Dad said that we needed to walk for one year if I was to understand how he perceives nature, and our place in it. So we did. This provided the structure for the film: spring, summer, autumn, winter. We spent five seasons shooting (as after winter a new spring arrives so we had to film a second spring). We then spent eight months editing. My editor Micha Lezczylowski really is a magician. We listened to symphonies together, and worked a lot to find the pace and rhythm of the film. We wanted it to be meditative in a way that allows the audience to fill in their own life.

Filmmaker: Were your parents at all hesitant about starring in the film and being followed so closely? Given they seem to prize privacy, did they find production intrusive at all?

Olin: My father said yes the moment I asked him. He picked the sights and the mountains we walked. My first film My Uncle (1997) was about my mother’s youngest brother, Reidar, who had Down Syndrome. Both my mother and my grandmother participated in that doc, and my mother treasures it. So when I first presented the idea for Songs of Earth she was actually very moved that I wanted to make a film about my father’s valley.

Along the way it grew into a love letter to both my parents. At first the idea was to follow in my father’s footsteps, sharing how he experienced nature. We started in spring, which I thought of as his childhood; then summer arrives with its fullness and richness, which I thought of as his youth. This is where we really bring mum into the film; nature was his first love, my mother his biggest love. It had to be like this to be a true image.

I brought them in at the rough cut stage for feedback, and they were both moved. My mother even chose the main poster for the film, pointing out her favorite image from the film. I would add that my main crew, DP Lars Erlend Tubaas Øymo and sound recordist Andreas Lindberg Svensson, are both very calm and patient; and thus were able to tune in on my parents’ intimacy so that the honesty, flirting and jokes could be captured.

Filmmaker: How and when did Wim Wenders and Liv Ullmann come onboard as EPs?

Olin: In 2014 I was asked by Wim´s company Road Movies to direct an episode for his (Berlinale-premiering) series Cathedrals of Culture, which became my 3D film about the Oslo Opera House. Then three years ago, after he had seen my 2020 film Self Portrait, he asked if I had a new project; I presented Songs of Earth to him, which was only a concept at the time. He immediately loved the idea, and came onboard during the pitching and financing stage. He also advised on music, and we even deeply discussed his term “soul of places”; he sat through several cuts.

It was so inspiring to have both him and Liv, who came in during the editing, with us. Liv was the first to see the rough cut and immediately understood the vision of the film. She gave such important feedback. And she has also supported the Norwegian launch by being present at screenings and participating in onstage talks.

Filmmaker: I was likewise quite taken with the mesmerizing and subtle soundtrack. Can you discuss the music a bit, including the decision to collaborate with the London Contemporary Orchestra?

Olin: When I was six years old my father brought me to the glacier for the first time. When the wind hit the surface and descended into the glacier’s crevasses it turned into tones. “Is there an orchestra playing in the depths of the glacier?” I asked. And my father answered, “Can you hear them too?”

Since then I have been wondering if all man-made music is inspired by the songs of the earth. The first idea for this film was to try to capture those vibrating and fragile tones you can hear in nature: the whistling on top of the mountains, the roar in the ocean, the flute in the wind, rustling on the surface of the fjords; the clock ticking underneath the glacier, working the landscape.

Andreas Svensson, who made the field recordings, has been lowering microphones into the crevasses in the glacier, has worked with hydrophones in the water and rivers. During editing we sent all these field recordings done in Oldedalen to my composer Rebekka Karijord, and she transcribed them into orchestral sounds. She then took these early scores to the studio and recorded soloists.

Once these recordings arrived my brilliant editor Michal Leszczylowski and our sound designer Tormod Ringnes (Flee, Pirates of the Caribbean) in tandem began to integrate the music with the sound design. All of us worked in an intuitive way with a lot of trust and freedom. I wanted the powerful (nature) to breathe throughout the film.

Rebekka had orchestrated the sketches and sounds for the London Contemporary Orchestra, and we eventually went to AIR studio in London and recorded the score. (Wim actually suggested the LOC to us.) I should emphasize that integrating the field recordings, raw sketches from the very beginning, and the larger orchestral recordings while still in the editing stage proved crucial to our end result. The experience of this film really rests on the flow created by the harmony between image and sound.

Filmmaker: Do you see Songs of Earth as an environmental (i.e., “activist”) doc? What are your ultimate hopes for the film?

Olin: There are several films about climate change out there, many important works in which scientists, activists, journalists and politicians bring facts to the table. My take is different: Why should we care to preserve nature? Can I inspire people to spend more time outdoors and feel reconnected, reenergized, healthier in balance? To fall in love again? In nature, interacting with all other life forms, we are never alone. We feel the aliveness of it all. Nature truly is the ultimate wonder. In nature our busy minds become still, the body awakens, and we are allowed to transcend.

I hope for an outdoor movement. An average European who lives to 100 years will have spent 90 years indoors. On August 5th we launched the film in Norway with 10 simultaneous, late-night, outdoor screenings at our most scenic and beautiful natural sites – all for free. I wanted audiences to experience the film in nature and to feel connected to it. On September 1st the film actually launched in Norwegian cinemas, and for three of the five days that first week it hit number one at the box office (making Barbie and Oppenheimer second and third). The film really is made for the big screen, both in image and in sound, so we’re working hard for theatrical releases in many countries; that has been our goal from the start.

I will add that in Norway, timed to our September 11th election, we’ve also been screening the film followed by public “campfire conversations” (not political debates) with local politicians across the country.

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