Songs of Earth : Exclusive Interview with Director Margreth Olin on One the Best Documentary of This Year!

Songs of Earth : Exclusive Interview with Director Margreth Olin on One the Best Documentary of This Year!

©Courtesy of Strand Releasing

Songs of Earth : Experiencing Norway’s adventurous valley, Oldedalen in Nordfjord, with Olin and his 85-year-old father; this is where he grew up, and where generations before him have lived in balance with nature.
Director : Margreth Olin
Producer : Margreth Olin, Lena Faye-Lund Sandvik
Screenwriter : Margreth Olin
Distributor : Strand Releasing
Production : CoSperanza Film AS
Genre : Documentary
Original Language : Norwegian
Release Date (Theaters): May 24, 2024, Limited
Runtime : 1h 30m
Songs of Earthj
©Courtesy of Strand Releasing
Exclusive Interview with Director Margreth Olin


Q :  What was your reason that you decided to go back to your homeland and film your parents?

Margreth Olin: Yes. I think I have known for years that one day I would make a film about the landscape of home. If we think about my mother when she grew up, the first words that she learned were fjord, waterfalls, mountain, glacier. I think that the surroundings that you have growing up are decisive for the character or the person that you become.

It’s like the landscape around you moves and becomes a part of you. And I really feel that making a film about the landscape of home is also making a film about the inner landscape of my parents. But the backdrop of the film is the climate and nature crisis and what is going on in our time.

There are a lot of sociopolitical films out there bringing facts to the table by scientists and politicians and activists and journalists. And those films are important, but they’re also scary for young people. By making a film about this topic, I wanted my contribution to be “why should we take care of nature?” Nature is our home.

I wanted to give the audience an experience—a nature experience in the cinema, with images and sound—so you feel that you can reconnect with nature. That was my goal. So this is why I made the film in this specific way, like a poem and a love letter and not like a regular documentary about a topic.

Q : A lot of documentary films have narration, but this film is told through Oldedalens nature and between your reflections with your parents. How did you carefully construct this? You said in the Q&A(At the IFC Center screening the other day) that you used nine cameraman to shoot the nature footages.

Margreth Olin: Yes. When set out to make this film, I was thinking that the gifts of nature are already there. So we were going to collect the images, not create the images. They’re there. We’re going to collect it. And also sound-wise. So what we did was that we had a DOP, Director of Photography. He worked with a camera on a tripod, but also a handheld camera walking with my father in the mountains and on the glacier.

But I also had a drone photographer that was with us every day, so that we could see my father as the little human being in this majestic, great, powerful nature. So it was important to align the DOP with his camera with the drone photography. I covered every step that my father did with two cameras. And then a lot of the drone footage that we’ve seen, it’s filmed in a very masculine, powerful way. But I wanted it to be like the eye of an eagle. It was that we saw him from another angle, another point of view. Who is seeing my father? Timeless. It’s timeless, yeah.

It was like nine photographers. But the concept of the film and the feeling of the film—me and my main photographer, Lars, communicated that to all of the photographers, like the tone of the film, the pace of the film, the rhythm, that we needed to open up for this meditative experience for the audience.

And when it comes to sound, I think, it is the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on, because what we did was that we were collecting the songs of Earth, when the wind comes through the valley and the wind goes into the crevasses in the ice, the sounds of the wind become tones.

It sounds like music. It is like ringing. It sounds like it’s done by instruments. And when I was a little girl, I thought maybe it was an orchestra inside the glacier because the sounds were so amazing. So now when I came back home and set out to make this film, I thought, is it possible to capture these sounds in stereo with stereo mics? We did capture the tones in the wind, for example.

And then we worked with hydrophones underneath the surface of the water in the lake and in the rivers. and we lowered microphones deep down into the glacier and could find rhythm and sounds that were never heard before. Like we stood on top of the glacier with earphones and it was like a clock ticking and you feel this urgency: the glacier is melting and time is running out for this landscape as we know it or nature as we know it. 

We filed all these field recordings and made a kind of library of different nature sounds. We invited soloists for different instruments. They listened to the nature sounds, and inspired by them, they transformed them into music. 

My composer, Rebecca Krijord, wrote a score based on what the soloists had done with the nature sounds, and then we went to London to Air Studio, and the music was performed by London Contemporary Orchestra, a big symphonic orchestra. They do many of the biggest Hollywood movies or UK movies, and they are brilliant. So suddenly we found ourselves in the Air Studio and we listened to this big symphonic orchestra making the wind in inside the glacier.

And that was an amazing experience. So for me, I have been thinking all the way that nature is the main character of the film and that we should feel nature during the four seasons. And the film is structured through the four seasons. My father and my mother–but especially my father, he’s the guide taking us into the woods, up on the mountain, to the glacier, close to the mountain for us to experience how he has experienced this landscape

And all the stories that my father shares in the film have to do with nature in a way that nature sets the premise for the outcome of the story. Like when he got appendicitis, they had to carry him over the snow break to take him to the hospital. It was an avalanche that killed the neighbors.

It was a landslide that took out so many in the family He was born with his heels pointing forward and his toes behind, but they did surgery on him when he was two years old. He started to run the mountains and he never stopped walking. So it is like how our lives are interwoven with nature. Our nature sets the premise for our lives.

Songs of Earth

©Courtesy of Strand Releasing

Q : In our country, Japan, occasionally we face a natural disaster like an earthquake. We had that big earthquake in 2011 and just like your country faces avalanches, it destroyed many houses. We also live with nature, but we also face the disasters of nature at the same time. In a certain aspect, you wanted your audience to feel that not just the bright side of nature, but also the danger side?

Margreth Olin: Yes.  I think that is very true. When I am at home and if I look through the window, if I look straight ahead, wherever I point, in whatever  direction I point my head, every image that I see contains life and death, you know. This one  is very beautiful, and it’s green and it’s flowers and plants and trees, but it is also the black and gray mountains where you see the scars in the mountain and where big blocks have dropped down, and this [too] is nature.

So nature sets the premise for our lives. And if you live in urban areas all your life, you’re born in the city, you die in the city, you buy the meat in the grocery stores. You don’t have to think about anything, where the meat comes from, how hard it is to produce our food. That everything that we breathe and drink and have comes from nature.

And we think that we are superior when we are compared to nature, but we are not. I started to make the film during the COVID pandemic. And then everyone felt that what is happening now [shows] how dependent we are on nature around us. We are quite small compared to the powerful forces around us. So that is why I picked the stories my father shares, which have to do with life and death and that nature sets the premise. Because I want us to feel what is behind everything and that we should reflect more upon that.

Q : Could you talk about the tall spruce tree that was planted around 1900? In a way that tree sees your town and your father talk about his relationship with his grandfather who planted that tree. What kind of conversation did you have with your father about this spruce tree that you remember?

Margreth Olin: Yes. I love the story about the spruce. It’s my great grandfather who planted it and my father’s grandfather. He died of cancer when he was around 40 years old. So before he died, he planted this spruce, My grandfather grew up without his father. He was nine years old when his father died, and he  inherited the farm when he was 11. He got the papers that he was to run the farm from the age of 11.

And he was quite young at that time, yeah. And he was the oldest son, and he had younger siblings and his mother was alone. And it was very hard running a farm in those days. They didn’t have a tub with water or electricity or anything.

And my father felt that his father had this connection to the spruce all his life. His father was gone, but the tree in the mountainside grew up alongside him getting taller and taller every decade as he grew up and lived his life. So it was small when my grandfather was young and by the end of his life, it was a big tree. My father has said to me that maybe this tree was looking down on the farm, looking after the next generations. And for me, when I started the film, all I could think of was that one day I would lose my parents.

But the story of the spruce tree and the connection that my grandfather and my father have had to it is that I suddenly saw my father has been walking the path that we have been following through the years. Like all these paths over the mountains, they have been walking for generations.

My father has been walking there all his life. And in winter, if you look at the landscape, if there’s not much snow, you can see all the traces shaped by our forefathers in the mountains. They had walked from there to there over the mountain to the next valley. And the footprints of my father will stay behind in the same way that the spruce stays behind.

And for me, this is how we are connected to the landscape and to nature and how we are interwoven with it. And it made me more calm. I lost my mother in August, but still I feel that she’s here, and that who we are and what we are stays behind after we are gone.

So my fear grew into a form of acceptance. And then the acceptance grew into gratefulness that my father and my mother have been carrying the stories of former generations to share with me, so maybe there are a lot of traces around us and in our lives. But if we don’t share the stories, we would not know about it, right?

Songs of Earth

©Courtesy of Strand Releasing

Q : When he was climbing up the mountain your father said that there were flowers growing between the rocks trying to survive under the difficult circumstances. But when he came to the top of the mountain, he mentioned that you can’t plan out a day like this sunny day; you appreciate what was given and do the best you can do in that circumstance. What kind of life lesson have you learned from him that you might apply in your life?

Margreth Olin: In a strange way, I feel that making this film has prepared me for that. Yeah, of course we didn’t know that my mother would pass away two days after the Norwegian premiere, right?

But in a way, walking with my father, the lesson I have learned is that life is larger than death. That even though death came and visited us when my mother passed away, it is like when we flew over the top of the glacier.

We saw light coming down and the sky suddenly opened up. It was very much like the sky was white. We couldn’t [distinguish the sky from] what was the glacier. The sky was totally white. And the pilot of the helicopter said
“we have to turn and go out because it’s dangerous. I can’t see anything.” But then suddenly the light came down into the glacier and it was this rail light.

It was enormous. It is one of the first images in the film and also the last image of the film. You see this red rail light shining from the sky and into the glacier. And for me, that [indicated] that there is a portal between heaven and earth. And when I lost my mother, she had this stroke on the same night as we had the outdoor premiere. My mother and I were picked up by an ambulance helicopter And we flew over the mountain and the glacier again to the nearest hospital in Bergen.

It was very early in the morning. So the sun came through and into the plane again. And then I really understood that she’s leaving now. We were again in the midst of this portal between heaven and earth. So I think that the lesson taught by my father is that life is what it is.

We have life only for a short time. We should think about the best times that we spend together–the beautiful things that we share and be grateful for that. And so only after a few days or weeks since my mother passed away, instead of all this fear, I [realized] I had been caring all my life for my mother and my father.

I felt that I was filled with this gratefulness because they had this love for one another. They had this love for nature, and they were able to share that with me in a way that I have the same beautiful experiences and pleasures living so much of my life outdoors as I do. But when you mentioned the flowers, I remembered that my father said that when you reach the top of the mountain, you see the flowers growing between the rocks.

The colors, the shades of that flower are as bright as anything you have ever seen. And for me that becomes a metaphor of life also. That maybe people that really have to struggle hard, that live in hard conditions, when you experience something really hard in your life, you also get a deeper consciousness of the life that comes between the rocks and the harshness of life. Or as some will say that in the darkness, you have the brightest light [as seen in] every human’s life.

There is a lot of simple but deep wisdom from my father in this film. In autumn, he sits down to drink his coffee and the forest is completely yellow, leaves are yellow, and he sits down in his own quiet and ease to reflect upon his life.

And the most important thing for me, he says, is that we have a good time together and that we live in peace with one another. Because if he has a good life, the people surrounding him will have a good life too. But he has to have that calm and ease to be in harmony in his own life. Yeah. And that in our time and so many people live hectic life, and it can be hard to have that time on your own. There is a deep truth in that. Find that balance in your own life to find the balance in life with others.

Q : Toward the end of the film, your mother talks about how losing a father is unbearable. And your father looks at her and says, “take it as it goes.” And he mentions that even though we are aging we are rich inside. What was actually amazing is that your mother adored your father and called him “my boy.” They appreciated how important each other was. I find this very romantic at that age. So talk about the relationship of your mother and father.

Margreth Olin: Yes. The first day of shooting, we were out walking and I asked him, “Why is it that you still walk these wild mountains at your age?”

He was 84 when we started. And he said “your mother is nine years younger than me. And I have promised her to be here until her last day.” He said that very frankly, and I hadn’t thought about that. I knew that my father was walking every day. I thought it was beautiful and he liked to keep fit, but that he had made this promise to her, since he was nine years older, that he had to keep in good shape and to be there because she couldn’t stand the thought of losing him.

And I think that is is a way to take responsibility for your partner in crime, partner in life, in such a beautiful way. So I was very moved by that. And at one point during filming, my mother also said to me that she prayed to go first, but then she looked at me and she said he has promised me to stay until my last day. So when it happened that my mother passed away, that was a kind of a comfort to us, both to my father and me, that he managed to stay healthy and fit and be there for her all her days.

They also had this great humor amongst them. When I asked them about their wedding day, he said “she was, slender or tiny as a lily, like a flower,” and then she says “he looked as he was supposed to do or what I expected.” She always had these jokes and she always made him laugh.. I think they kept on falling in love with one another for over 60 years.

Q : That’s so beautiful. So what do you want audiences to take away from this film?

Margreth Olin: One of my goals making this film was to give the audience an opportunity to reconnect with nature, to remember this deep longing that we all have for being out in the wild, not in a scary way, but that we are really connected to all other life forms.

I thought of how can we make the audience see nature or this landscape as it is for the first time. I think that is the task of art. If you have a rock, how can I film it? How can I describe it so when you look at a rock, you see it and say “oh, I have never seen a rock before.” The film is meditative and it’s slow paced because everything is in such a hurry and the pace is so fast in everything that we do.

I want the audience to lean back and just take in the gifts from my father and from nature.  I think about the film as a gift from previous generations to the coming generations.

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