Theater of Cruelty

Goes to childhood

Regissør: Margreth Olin

Margreth Olin's new documentary is quiet, sweet and observant, but equally marked by her views on both the age group and the institution it portrays. 


Film director Margreth Olin has on several occasions cited American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman as one of his most important sources of inspiration. Wiseman is a key name in the historical "direct cinema" tradition, avoiding talking heads and omniscient narrative voices in favor of a strictly observant, "fly on the wall" -like approach. However, Olin's own films have rarely used this style consistently, but have instead combined observational scenes with a rather strong presence on the part of the filmmaker – especially through voice over narration on the soundtrack, but sometimes also visible in front of the camera.

Here you can possibly trace a certain relationship with Swedish Stefan Jarl and Danish Lars von Trier, two other filmmakers she reportedly also has great respect for. At the same time, it may seem that the fiercely engaged Olin has occasionally felt compelled to co-star in her films, as when she testified in court for some of the minor refugees she was following. The others (2012), or when her own partner became seriously ill while portraying Joralf Gjerstad in last year's audience success The man from Snåsa.

Institutional films. Olin's most accomplished observational films to date have been Dei soft hands from 1998, which was also her first full-length cinema documentary, The cruelty of youth from 2004. The latter film followed the previously mentioned Lars von Trier's dogma rules for documentaries, which among other things forbade the use of reconstructions, archive images, sound and image manipulation or production of sound separated from the image, and depicted everyday life to tenth graders at Hauketo school in Oslo. Dei soft hands , for its part, was about the residents and employees of an old home, and both of these films can thus be said to follow the tradition of direct cinema for institutional films – where Wiseman will again be featured for his documentaries from the school system, among others (high School, 1968) and various hospitals (Titicut Follies, 1967 and Hospital.

The king's year of childhood. As the two films mentioned deal with adolescence and old age respectively, in her new documentary, Olin has embarked on another phase in life – portrayed with an even more purely observational expression, once again at an institution. Childhood is a film about – you guessed it – childhood, which follows a kindergarten on Nesodden for one year. Olin's main focus is on the soon-to-be-ready kids in the kindergarten's six-year club, which eventually goes into what the film's introductory texts refer to as "the king's year" in childhood – the year one turns seven.

Apart from these first posters, the film consists entirely of observational scenes with the children and staff of Aurora kindergarten, albeit occasionally accompanied by evocative music signed Rebekka Karijord. In addition, it is a film that, to a lesser extent than many other "fly on the wall" films, follows the characters' specific projects or goals, instead of portraying large and perhaps small things happening in kindergarten during this year.

With his absence of polemical interviews or narrative voices Childhood both quiet and gentle in its tone. In this way, the filmmaker follows up his self-proclaimed "feel good" documentary The man from Snåsa with a strikingly cute film, perhaps once again as a kind of backlash to the tearing documentation of minors fleeing in The others.

Play rather than learning. However, that does not mean that the film is without political message from the director. Like both Dei soft hands, The cruelty of youth og The others, can Childhood is considered a debate post about how our society treats the specific age group portrayed in the film (which is admittedly in a very peculiar and very vulnerable situation in The others). Olin here abandons the relatively recent decision to allow children to start school from the age of six, in a film that argues for the importance of play rather than learning in this phase of life – because play is a form of learning, but not necessarily vice versa.

The film argues for the importance of play rather than learning in this phase of life – because play is a form of learning, but not necessarily vice versa.

Steiner Kindergarten. The selected Aurora is a rock kindergarten, without it having been a point from Olin to promote this educational approach specifically. Rather, the choice should have fallen on this spot because it was here that she was allowed to film children and staff. Nevertheless, this institution appears to be a very nice place to be for the kids, with their many surplus activities in the natural environment – and not least a staff that seems to possess some pretty impressive ability to watch and listen to the children, and guide their game in the pedagogically correct direction when needed.

In particular, the patient and charismatic Kristoffer stands out in this way, a kindergarten employee who is apparently very well-liked by the kids – and understandably given a central place in the film. But he has no surprising company of some very charming younger protagonists, who make sure that there is a short between the so-called golden grains from children's mouths.

The good example. Childhood draws a very flattering picture of this specific kindergarten and its play-oriented learning philosophy, which stands in relatively sharp contrast to the kindergartens you hear about with scarce resources, understaffing and a shortage of qualified staff. In other words, this is a movie that highlights the good example rather than pointing out the scare examples, but which, with this, wants to bring childhood back to the political timetable. And even though Olin has chosen to stay in the backdrop of her own film this time around, she has hardly intended to do the same in the debates it might create.

Childhood is currently attending Norwegian cinemas. 

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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