Margreth Olin’s latest documentary is serene, sweet and observational, but nevertheless an opinion piece on both the age group and the institution it portrays.
Film director Margreth Olin frequently refers to US documentary maker Frederick Wiseman as one of her most important sources of inspiration. Wiseman is a central name within the historical ‘direct cinema’-tradition, which steers clear of talking heads and omniscient narration to the advantage of a strictly observing, ‘fly-on-the-wall’-like approach. However, this style is rarely used consequently in Olin’s own films. Instead, she often opts for a combination of observational scenes coupled with a rather strong presence of the film maker herself – particularly through voice-over narration, but sometimes also in front of camera.
Here, it is possible to trace a certain kinship with the Swede Stefan Jarl and the Dane Lars von Trier, two other filmmakers she is said to admire. Simultaneously, it may seem as if the fiery passionate Olin occasionally feels forced to participate in her own films. Like when she was a court witness for some of the refugee minors she followed in Nowhere home (De andre, 2012), or when her own partner became seriously ill during her work on the Joralf Gjerstad portrait in last year’s audience hit Doing Good (Mannen fra Snåsa).
Institutional films. Olin’s most consistently observational films include the 1998 The House of Angels (Dei mjuke hendene), her first feature documentary, and the ‘dogumentary’ entitled Raw Youth (Ungdommens råskap) from 2004. The latter followed the aforementioned Lars von Triers’ documentary dogma rules, which, for instance, ban the use of reconstructions, archive footage, sound and image manipulation, and sound produced separate from images, and depicted the daily life of the Year 10 class at Hauketo school in Oslo. The House of Angels, on the other hand, portrayed residents and staff at a retirement home. Both films can be said to follow the tradition within direct cinema for institutional films – where Wiseman could again be used as example due to his documentaries on, for instance, the education system (High School, 1968) and various hospitals (Titicut Follies, 1967 and Hospital, 1970).
Childhood’s most momentous year. Whereas her two aforementioned films portray youth and old age respectively, Olin’s latest documentary depicts another life stage – portrayed with an even purer observational approach, yet again in an institution. Childhood (Barndom) is about – you guessed it – childhood, and tracks a Nesodden nursery over the course of a year. Olin’s main focus are the almost school-ready children who are part of the nursery’s Six Year Club. Soon, they will enter what in the film’s intro is referred to as childhood’s ‘most momentous’ year of – when you turn seven. Aside from these initial text posters, the film consists purely of observational scenes with the Aurora nursery children and staff, other than being infrequently accompanied by Rebekka Karijord’s atmospheric score. Furthemore, the film does not particularly focus on overarching projects or goals of the characters, instead depicting a selection of the bigger and, perhaps rather, smaller things that happen in the nursery over the course of this year.
Childhood can be seen as an opinion piece on the way our society treats the particular age group depicted in the film.
Through its absence of polemic interviews or voice-overs, the tone of Childhood is both serene and mild. This way, the filmmaker follows her self-declared ‘feelgood’ documentary Doing Good with a particularly sweet film, yet again perhaps serving as antidote to the upsetting documentation of fleeing minors in Nowhere Home.
Play instead of learning. However, this does not mean that the film lacks a political message from the director. Like both The House of Angels, Raw Youth and Nowhere Home, Childhood can be seen as an opinion piece on the way our society treats the particular age group depicted in the film (which, in The Others is in a particular and very vulnerable position). Olin distances herself from the relatively new decision to allow children to already start school the year they turn six, in a film which argues the importance of play over learning in this stage of life – because play is a form of learning, and not necessarily the other way around.
Waldorf nursery. The chosen Aurora is a Waldorf nursery, but Olin does not particularly promote this specific educational approach. Instead, the decision to focus on this venue was because they gave her permission to film its children and staff. Never the less, the institution appears a very attractive place for the children involved, with its many energetic, nature-based activities – and not least the staff which seem to possess an impressive ability to watch and listen to the children, and guide their play in an educationally correct direction when required. In particular, the patient and charismatic Kristoffer, a nursery staff member who appears very popular with the children – and who, understandably, is a central character in the film. Unsurprisingly, he is joined by a collection of some very charming, younger main characters, and their «out of the mouths of babes» reasoning.
The good role model. Childhood paints a very flattering picture of this particular nursery, and its play-based philosophy of learning. It contrasts relatively sharply with the resource-poor nurseries you more often hear about, which are understaffed and lacking in qualified personnel. This film, in other words, emphasises the good role model rather than pointing out bad examples. Nonetheless, it clearly wants to put childhood back on the political agenda. Olin may have chosen to remain in the background of this film, but she is unlikely to do so in any subsequent debates it may generate.