On November 14, 2023, this year, the United States federal government released the National Climate Assessment, the latest report comprehensively spelling out the climate crisis’ projected risks and impacts. The prognosis isn’t pretty, with experts concluding it’s effectively too late to prevent many things from worsening over the next decade. The question of how to approach a “man versus nature” narrative today, given the complexion of our news cycles and the strains of doomerist pessimism spreading in our cultural zeitgeist, is an intriguing one. Typical conflicts of this sort invite thematic exploration into concepts like perseverance, the fatal avarice and ambition of humankind, and the destructive march of extractive, capitalistic empire — undoubtedly topics that a talented screenwriter could transfigure into compellingly topical dramatic fare.
In her latest film, the nature documentary Songs of Earth, Norwegian writer-director Margreth Olin aims instead for a hushed, contemplative mode of witness. The film’s setting of Oldedalen, the river valley part of Norway’s Vestland county, is as majestic in its beauty as it is almost alien. Between the extreme close-ups and wide shots of verdant hills, stark snowfields, pristinely blue streams, and treacherously steep shelves of rock and ice, the camera gorgeously communicates the sheer scale of the landscape’s impressiveness in one glorious wallpaper shot after another. Key to that magnificence is the near complete absence of any human presence, save for the native octogenarian, Jørgen, whom we follow as he traverses the terrain. Often, he is hilariously dwarfed by his surroundings, which he peers back at with a wholesome sense of appreciation and awe. In Songs of Earth, Olin conjures a thoroughly existential mood, yet layers it with a grounded peacefulness, the perfect tonic for the paroxysms of dread and bitterness cropping up across our “For You” pages and feeds. As the title would suggest, she strives for the sweetness of the lyrical, arguing that we ought to face the impersonal might of the natural world with a desire for harmony.
Observing Oldedalen through Olin’s eyes, the word that comes to mind is permanence. Contrasted with Jørgen’s frailness, the ledges, peaks, and summits are the towering facets of an immovable, almighty beast. The sound design sells this association, amplifying the gusts of the wind and the quaking rumbles, thumps, and cracks. Alternating and collaborating with an ethereal soundscape that erupts into symphonic strings, the sonic choices result in a sort of ode to the valley’s supreme splendor. There are notes of strangeness as well, aural reminders that nature is home to terrestrial forces as remote from our commonplace understanding as any cosmic marvel. But never are we meant to descend into abject terror. Still, Olin shows that the environment doesn’t hold back its brutality. Jørgen recounts his ancestors’ experience with the nearby Ramnefjellet mountain, which in 1905 killed his great-grandmother’s brother and brother’s entire family in a landslide. Jørgen speaks of the tragedy’s sad horror with a detachment that’s not callous but conscious. He has processed this historical trauma and taken from it an improved understanding of his place relative to the place he has called home. Songs of Earth makes continuous mention of old songs and sayings, snatches of poetry and religious ruminations on death and the soul, human traditions offering wisdom and healing, and reaching — through those — a sort of permanence, the comfort of the everlasting. Through this symmetry, the film summons a subtle force of its own, elevating its text to rousing effect.
In the original Norwegian, Olin’s film is aptly titled Fedrelandet, meaning “Fatherland.” Jørgen, who is Olin’s father, is the documentary’s human centerpiece, with his wife and Margreth’s mother, Magnhild, along as a minor, supporting presence. Jørgen reminisces about his upbringing and community, banters and dances with Magnhild, remarks on the grandeur encompassing him, and otherwise enjoys the slow, solitary passage of time. His hikes are divided across four chapters, each corresponding with a season, beginning with the blossoming of spring and concluding with the clean slate of winter. It’s a temporal journey that reflects the progression from life to death, all the more poignant considering his advanced age. He isn’t afraid of death, however, and accepts his inevitable end without bitter or arrogant protest, citing the natural succession of one generation to the next as a plain fact of life. Jørgen’s musings comprise the narrative backbone of Songs of Earth, and as such provide the film with a loose, meandering, and at times recursive structure with only the most basic chronological thrust. The spotlighted information lacks much of any compounding architecture, instead surfacing more extemporaneously, as if to evoke the liberated flow of a free verse poem. Mileage, then, may vary for a viewer depending on how sturdy of a story thread they prefer, as well as whether they feel the film starts to see diminishing returns with the excess of nature shots. Regardless, Olin has a stirring, elegiac film here, its strengths found not just in its images and tones, but also its essences. The shots of crumpling glaciers in its final stretches reacquaint us with the present, suggesting that no matter our mythologies, our ecosystems, like our loved ones, are far from truly permanent fixtures. We ought to be grateful, then, for what little time we have.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2023 — Dispatch 1.