– Norwegian director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s documentary follows a family that has exchanged the race for status and profit for a sustainable life in nature, but is impeded by a tragedy
The second feature-length documentary by Norwegian director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, A New Kind of Wilderness, which has just world-premiered at Sundance, follows a family that has opted out of the fast, modern, urban way of life and instead moved to a farm in a Norwegian forest. Hardly the first such story in recent documentary cinema, as people increasingly recognise the destructiveness of the race for profit and status, it nevertheless trains a slightly different lens on this civilisational trend.
Initially, Jacobsen dives bluntly into the story and then starts infusing it with notes of hopefulness that come across in the undeniable love and closeness between the family members. The film opens with the voice-over of photographer Maria, the mother of teenager Ronja from a previous relationship, and of Ulv, Falk and Freja, whom she has with Nik, a British man. It is, however, only three minutes of the film’s running time in which she explains their desire to live independently and sustainably, farm their own food and homeschool the children – after which we see a series of photos of her hooked up to a drip and getting her head shaved by her kids.
After she dies, the family reels from the loss before Nik realises that without Maria’s income, they would be forced to sell the farm and move to a city. But that’s not before we are introduced to their idyllic way of life, surrounded by sheep, goats, chickens and ducks, with the kids’ muddy hands picking out carrots, always filmed in crisp, lively colours, and with the sun shining through the rich greenery in a widescreen format. With an ever-present orchestral score by Olav Øyehaug, which relies strongly on strings, chimes and acoustic guitar, the director, along with editors Kristian Tveit and Christoffer Heie, directly imposes on the viewer the mood that ranges from stirring to inspiring, and from lightly melancholic to quite sentimental.
But maybe the filmmakers did not have to lean so much into this somewhat heavy-handed approach. The characters are generally well-developed, with their emotions and thoughts transpiring clearly from short, off-screen interviews and cinematography by the director and two other camerawomen, Karine Fosser and Line K Lyngstadaas. With a clearly defined sensibility, they capture the telling changes on the protagonists’ faces, which also helps in discerning the different aspects of their evolving situation. The occasional re-appearance of Maria through old home videos is another, arguably more impactful and certainly more contemplative method that reflects the consequences of the family’s loss.
After Maria died, Ronja decided to move in with her dad and feels a certain guilt about not connecting with her closest sibling, Freja. The former’s conversation with a therapist very briefly and somewhat jarringly takes the viewer out of the idyllic setting and straight into a knot of complex emotions. Meanwhile, despite putting on a brave face for his kids, Nik is full of self-doubt and considers moving back to England with the family, where his brother has a farm and he would have a lot more support. And Freja is the one who will most quickly accept and adapt to life back in civilisation. Through all this, every member of the family grows, and their character arcs are developed with perceptive psychological nuance – all the more reason to tone down the amount and intensity of the music score.