There is a persistent pensive tone in the ode to the virtues of pastoral life in A New Kind of Wilderness, a Norwegian documentary directed by Silje Evensmo Jacobsen, which received its premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The film won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
The film opens on a buoyant yet deliberate note about the idyllic life for a couple and their four children who thrive on a small farm nestled in a Norwegian forest, away from the hectic modern and urban landscape. But, when the mother dies from cervical cancer, the loss compels the surviving members to adapt to a different living environment, as they realize the difficulties of keeping the hub of home life that Maria had cultivated.
Jacobsen is eminently respectful of the Paynes’ family focus on raising their four children to be self-sufficient and celebrating the gifts of nature and animals, with their education being conducted at home. Every voiceover in the film comes from a family member.
The genesis for A New Kind of Wilderness came more than a decade ago, when the director discovered a blog (WildandFree.no) by Maria, the mother. Maria, who is Norwegian, and Nik, who comes from England, chronicled many details of their unique pastoral life, while also outlining the challenges involved in homeschooling, self-sufficient agriculture and ensuring the children thrive in their environment.
Thus, the documentary project began and the film’s opening segment captures the liberating sense of their chosen lifestyle. The four children (Ulv, Falk, Freja, and Ronja) truly feel comfortable in their natural setting. But, those few scenes made it clear that a lot of hard work comes with it, a clear counterpoint to the acknowledgment how so many artificial conveniences make modern society life possible.
The documentary project was put on hold for various reasons but the most consequential one came after Jacobsen read a blog post that Maria had late-stage cancer. In 2019, when the director returned to the family, the members were grieving the loss of their mother.
The father and the children agreed to continue the project, as Jacobsen now set out to not only crystallize Maria’s legacy but also to tell the family’s story of coping with profound loss and the fresh challenges of staying true to the lifestyle that Maria had inspired in them. And, there were challenges that others might consider too private for being considered as material for a documentary that would be seen around the world.
One involved Ronja, the oldest child who was Maria’s daughter from a previous marriage. After her mother died, she decided to move in with her father and leave Nik to raise the three younger children. Ronja frequently expresses that she felt guilty for leaving the farm and wondered how that would affect the relationship, especially with the next eldest child and second daughter in the family, Freja. There are emotions in whatever tensions emerge from the matter but nevertheless they are nuanced and perhaps it is this sub story arc which reflects most prominently the lingering sadness of their mother’s passing.
Nik feels overwhelmed and underprepared at times. He is unsure that he can keep up with the finances to keep the farm.He contemplates the possibility of returning to England with his kids, but he also worries that such a decision would negate the strong presence and inspirations that Maria had cultivated in their lives. He is concerned about his limits in ensuring that Ulk, Falk and Freja have a well-rounded education and the children balk about going to school in unfamiliar social surroundings.
It is notable that Jacobsen asked Nik to add his own statement in the press materials. About Maria, he wrote, “I saw over the years how moved and inspired people were by her images and what she wrote about life. I don’t want her wisdom to die along with her but to live on and grow in as many hearts filled with love as possible.” As for the documentary experience, he wrote, “The filming process was very challenging for us and there were many times when we regretted agreeing to it. I am a private person who does not seek out ways to be demonstrative and I was going through the hardest and most chaotic years of my life. To have somebody following around with a camera was not easy, to say the least. My biggest worry was what the finished film would be like and whether we would be able to live with the result.”
One reason why the film is so intimate and understated in its expression of emotions and the pain of grief that comes with the loss of a central family member is that the director would never have considered compromising the trust she initially had gained with Maria at the project’s outset. In her director’s statement, Jacobsen explained why Nik had agreed to proceed with filming after Maria’s death: “They knew my connections with Maria and knew that she wanted me to make a film and they believed Maria was somehow involved, connecting me to them.”
Indeed, Jacobsen navigates the potentially tricky territory with resolute calm. No decision that Nik and the children face is dichotomously evident, which adds an important interior value to this film. The film is left on an open end but it also comes with a promising note that Maria’s legacy perhaps resides much deeper than expected in the minds and hearts of the surviving family members.
For more information about films and tickets, see the Sundance Film Festival website.