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Thessaloniki Int’l Documentary Festival Hosts European Premiere Of Sundance Winner ‘A New Kind Of Wilderness’

The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film A New Kind of Wilderness has bowed at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival in Greece, marking its European premiere.

Director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen attended the Thessaloniki premiere in person along with two of the film’s protagonists: Freja Vatne Payne and Ronja Breda Vatne. Freja and Ronja are the daughters of Maria Vatne, a gifted photographer who celebrated her family’s unorthodox lifestyle in a remote area of Norway through a blog called Wild + Free. The film begins with stunning footage and photographs taken by Vatne of her kids – in addition to the girls, boys Falk (Norwegian for “falcon”) and the youngest, Ulv (Norwegian for wolf).

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But that opening sequence is punctuated by a bracing image – Vatne hooked up to tubes as she receives chemotherapy treatment. This idyllic life of farming, home-schooling, and communing with nature will be cruelly interrupted by tragedy.

L-R Q&A moderator,  Ronja Breda Vatne, Freja Vatne Payne, and director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen.
L-R Q&A moderator, Ronja Breda Vatne, Freja Vatne Payne, and director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen.

“I discovered Maria’s blog 10 years ago,” Jacobsen explained at a Q&A on Saturday in Thessaloniki. “I called her because her photos and stories really grabbed me. They were amazing. I wanted to make a TV series and I reached out to her.”

Jacobsen said she met in person with Vatne but despite Maria’s enthusiasm for the TV project, it ultimately didn’t come to fruition. After the photographer’s untimely death, the director wanted to document the new and unexpected challenges facing Maria’s widower, Nik Payne and the kids (Payne is stepfather to the eldest daughter, Ronja). “I realized I had to make something,” Jacobsen said. “It was still a real-life project on their values, but they were going on a different journey now.”

'A New Kind of Wilderness'
‘A New Kind of Wilderness’

That journey of grief and fitful healing has touched viewers beginning at Sundance, where the film won the top prize for World Cinema Documentary. In Thessaloniki, a number of audience members expressed their emotional reactions. One viewer asked Ronja and Freja how they were able to open up in such a vulnerable way for the camera.

“It was, of course, hard at times,” Ronja conceded, “but we kind of have been so natural [on] camera for so many years because our mom always documented everything. But sharing everything, it was very difficult, but we felt that it was worth it because then we have something to see back on. And for me, when I see myself and my journey and my growth through the film, I feel like it’s still worth it… It’s been a really up and down journey.”

L-R Falk, Ulv, and dad Nik Payne in 'A New Kind of Wilderness'
L-R Falk, Ulv, and dad Nik Payne in ‘A New Kind of Wilderness’

A New Kind of Wilderness is playing in International Competition at Thessaloniki, along with world premieres Stray Bodies (directed by Elina Psykou), Unclickable (directed by Babis Makridis), Pol Pot Dancing (directed by Eugene Sánchez), and nine other films. From Thessaloniki, Jacobsen’s film will head to Docville – the all-documentary festival in Leuven, Belgium that begins March 20. On March 22, the film will screen at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen.

Danish outfit DR Sales is handling world sales of A New Kind of Wilderness. Cinetic is working on U.S. sales, per Jacobsen.

“I think it’s a film to see on the big screen,” Jacobsen told Deadline. “Hopefully, it will get a theatrical life in the U.S. as well.”

L-R Ulv, Falk, and Freja photographed by their mother, Maria Vatne.
L-R Ulv, Falk, and Freja photographed by their mother, Maria Vatne.

On her Instagram page, Vatne described herself as “photographer, farmer & mama to four wildlings.” Among her photographic essays on Wild + Free is one she called “Faeries & wildlings” which show her three youngest children in a forest setting that teems with wildflowers.

“Every spring they appear like a magical blanket in the woods, covering the forest floor with their beautiful faerie-like spirit, the woodland anemones,” Vatne wrote. “Perfect for capturing my equally magical wildlings in, so I do it, every year, it’s a part of our celebration of spring.”

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