How ‘A New Kind of Wilderness’ Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen Bonded With the Payne Family and Captured Their Challenging Moments

Posted on: Feb 02, 2024

A young boy with long hair sitting on a roof outside in the forest.Photo courtesy of Silje Evensmo Jacobsen

By Chris Butera

Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen just won the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for her documentary and Sundance debut A New Kind of Wilderness. The film revolves around the Paynes, a Norwegian/British family living off the grid following the unexpected passing of Maria, a photographer, blogger and family matriarch.

It’s a simple story, but effective as the raw emotions and struggles become thought-provoking images. These unfiltered moments grab the viewer’s attention as the Paynes’ world undergoes a seismic shift, forcing them to make difficult choices while they pull together as a family.

Prior to winning the award, Jacobsen took time to discuss her original vision for the documentary, how she pivoted to its final form and the bond that she shared with the Paynes every step of the way.

I understand that you were inspired by Maria’s blog. Just how did you decide to make this film, and how did you approach the family about the project?

The blog inspired me many years ago. They reinvented their lives taking the new path, homeschooling [the children] and [living a] sustainable lifestyle. They wanted to be together in nature, and that was really inspiring. But we didn’t make anything of their life project then, and when Maria passed away, I felt the urge to do something with her photos and stories to share them to the world.

I was [also] really interested in the children, the family, how they were dealing with the loss of Maria because they were so bound to [it] being two adults—two people—to make the life project go on, and now they couldn’t. It was really hard for Nik to keep [going with] the life project.

I was interested in all the changes after her death and also how the different perspectives from the different people in the family would go through the loss and find their way back to life.

From the way that “A New Kind of Wilderness” is edited to begin with Maria’s voice-over, then cutting off when, of course, she falls ill, it feels like this may not have been the film you set out to make. Was this the original concept and if not, how were you able to pivot?

It was like you said—the original idea in 2015 was more [of] a TV series on their life project—a lighter series. But when she fell ill, then I was really interested in how they were going to cope with the changes and everything that happened in their life. It became another story, different from what I thought. Still, when starting this film, it was my intention to follow them through their grieving period, and Nik as a single parent navigating through loss. So you can say it’s different from the first idea in 2014, 2015, but still, the idea for the new film was another film, if it makes sense.

The movie feels like everyone involved is grieving both in front of the camera and behind it. What was that process like for you, and what was it like filming the family’s experience during such a difficult time?

I only met Maria once in 2015, but we talked on the phone and we had kept in touch. I was following her blog, and she was really personal on her blog, sharing just the good and the bad about their life project. When she passed away, it felt like I lost a friend. I was devastated, and that was my main reason for wanting to do it, was to share her photos and stories.

When I connected with them again, they knew me from before. They knew that I wanted to make a film earlier, and they knew that Maria wanted me to make a film earlier. So I think, in a way, they found comfort in me being there and making the film about them, even though it was a difficult time for them—as well as for me being there because I wasn’t part of the family—but I was for sure a friend, and they knew that I admired their mother for her past work.

The film is about a lot of different things: great loss, isolation, uncomfortable adaptation, difficult decisions and of course, family. How were you able to capture these notes in the way that you did?

Making documentary films where you follow people that’s in a process, it’s complicated and it’s not black and white. Even though you try to capture the whole picture and the whole range of emotions, it’s impossible.

I always urge [myself] to try to convey all the complex situations and not try to make it black or white or simple. Even if it’s a subtle film and a small story in a way, I think if you can see the conflicts in the stories and … I think it would be a bigger film if it says something more about life than just the small things.

How did this experience differ from others that you’ve had?

My first feature was “Faith Can Move Mountains.” It’s a bit of the same, following a process, trying to make nothing black and white, trying to show the complexity of matters and people. But maybe my earliest series was more simple, more [of an] easier way and [a] more realistic way of telling things. But now … I need the time and the tempo and everything to really convey the story as I want it to be seen and told.

Is this the first feature to be shown at Sundance?

Oh, yes. It’s the first feature. It’s been a huge thing for me and for the little company that I am a part of. It’s been amazing.

What was it like just getting that acceptance letter saying, “Yes, we’re going to show your movie in Sundance,” and what has the reception been?

It’s just been surreal. It’s a cliche, but you just have to pinch your arm because that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about getting our human stories to Sundance. That’s been our goal, and we’re always joking around it but [are] a bit serious. We never really dared to say that out loud because we know that the chance of getting in is so small.

When we got accepted, it took me some time to realize it, and then I’ve just been enjoying looking forward to it and coming here. It probably doesn’t sound true, but I haven’t thought about the award once. I’ve just been really enjoying being here, screening for the people, meeting the audience, getting their feedback from them. That’s just been a really amazing experience.

What’s next for you?

We’re going to travel with the film for festivals and cinemas internationally. Hopefully, we’ll go far and many people will see it. I’m actually developing a documentary for children, with my children. That’s a true detective mystery documentary film.

I’m also starting to [work on a project about] the adoption scandal in Europe. I’m following this young South Korean [who] was adopted from South Korea, and she’s suing the state of Norway for human trafficking. So, that’s another project. Two quite different projects that I’m working on now.

How do you end up with these projects? Does it come from heavy research and outreach, does it just happen or is it a little bit of both?

It can be a spark happening, just an idea that I try to follow and see if I get the urge because it’s hard to make films. You need to have an urge to tell the film. If I feel the urge, then I know it’s right and I will continue to research. Or, it can be [where] I’m reading an article that I’m interested in and trying to research some more. If I get into the subject, then I will try to make something.

Or, like A New Kind of Wilderness, where it was the blog that inspired me. I also need to visualize it. If a story kicks to me or if a story is talking to me, I need to almost see it as a whole film in my head before I start. Then I know that it’s something for me to begin with. It can be different ways that I get to the stories, but I just need to have the spark to tell it.

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