Natural Wonders

‘Songs Of Earth’ director on capturing Norway’s natural wonders and exploring relationship with her father | Features

Songs Of Earth (Fedrelandet)_Credit Lars Erlend Tubaas Oymo

Margreth Olin has always felt a special connection to nature. “Since I was a child, being outside has been like magic to me,” she says. “I can remember being five or six years old the first time my father brought me to the glacier near our house, and the sound of the wind when it went into the crevices in the ice turned into tones. I thought I heard music. I asked my dad, ‘Is there an orchestra playing down there in the depths?’ He answered, ‘Can you hear them too?’

“Since then, I have been collecting sounds and images, knowing that one day I will use this for a bigger purpose,” adds the Norwegian director and producer, who has been making documentaries for 25 years and tells her most personal story with Songs Of Earth. The film is about her 85-year-old father and his special relationship to the natural wonders near his home in Oldedalen, Norway.

Olin felt the time was right to tell this story for several reasons. As her parents were getting older, Olin was confronted by her fear of losing them. Her partner had also suffered a stroke at the age of 47, changing both of their lives and making Olin question how she wanted to live.

Visual language

Margreth Olin_director of Songs of Earth_portrait 2_Credit Agnete Brun

When Olin sought her parents’ advice, her father responded with his usual suggestion: “Let’s take a hike together”. But this time, he added, “I think you need to walk for one year.” At first, the proposal made Olin laugh but she realised the pandemic presented an opportunity to return home, make a film about nature and walk with her father through the four seasons.

The Norwegian landscapes, of course, look cinematic and majestic, but it was also important to Olin that Songs Of Earth had a unique visual language. With that in mind, she hired director of photography Lars Erlend Tubaas Oymo, who was one of the cinematographers on her acclaimed 2020 documentary Self Portrait. “It was important to me that Lars hadn’t filmed nature before,” she says. “I wanted him to be fresh. I wanted him to explore this area, almost like me being a child and taking it all in. Also, I knew he would be calm and relaxed, like my father.”

There were nine photographers in total, including drone experts, an underwater specialist, a local landscape expert and three photographers who concentrated on wildlife. The weather was unpredictable, both for the worse — a treacherously slippy downhill slope on one 11-hour hike while carrying equipment through the rain — or for the better — a double rainbow over a lake captured on the first day of filming.

Olin chose not to impose her own plans when filming in nature. “We knew that we have to listen to the surroundings, to the weather, to my father,” she says. “I was thinking about the visuals… that we have not made them or created them — we have been collecting them.”

Once the walk was complete, Olin worked with her longtime editor Michal Leszczylowski — who previously worked with Andrei Tarkovsky — to craft 200 hours of footage into a “documentary symphony”. The approach to sound and music was also intentional: the team, including sound recordist Andreas Lindberg Svensson, collected field recordings of natural sounds and then invited composer Rebekka Karijord to write music inspired by them, which was subsequently recorded by the London Contemporary Orchestra. “I’ve heard these tones all my life,” Olin says. “It was very moving to hear a full symphonic orchestra playing the wind in my father’s valley.”

It is not only her parents who entered the project with open arms — Olin counts filmmakers Wim Wenders and Liv Ullmann as executive producers, and both have helped her feel connected during the film­making journey. “Because I produce my own films, sometimes it can be quite lonely,” she comments. “It’s good to have creative people to discuss the vision of the film while we are making it.”

With Cinephil handling world sales, Songs Of Earth has sold to Strand Releasing for North America (which plans a release in early 2024) as well as having theatrical launches with FilmBazar in Denmark, Wanted in Italy, Krakow Film Foundation in Poland, Bantam in Benelux, Film Europe in the Czech Republic/Slovakia and Transformer in Japan. Norsk Film Distribution has already turned Songs Of Earth into a box-office hit at home in Norway, even before becoming the first documentary the country has submitted to the best international feature Oscar race.

“A lot of people cry when they see this film,” Olin says about its growing global audience. “They think about their own parents, and death, and our relation to nature.” 

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