Still Glowing Strong · RadioDoc Review

Review by Anna Elisabeth (Lisbeth) Jessen, first published in RadioDoc Review, 2015

Throughout his 86 years of life, Norwegian Harald Brobakken has looked up at the starry sky and wondered if there is energy up there that could be used for something. When he was 80 years old, he made his great discovery. In the study of his small flat in a satellite town of Oslo, Harald has created what he believes is an everlasting battery – an invention that perhaps could save the world. The problem is that no one has the time to look at it – his wife in particular.

With support from his grandson, Harald wants to get scientific corroboration for his invention.

The program maker Sindre Leganger went to visit Harald and his wife several times in their flat, to look at the everlasting battery and talk about how it works. He is also there when a scientist from Oslo University comes to check out the invention.

Apart from following the concrete aspects of the story, most of all, this is a program about our short lives and the eternal starry sky above us, about being stubborn, optimistic and about hope.

When listeners ask me what is a radio feature – a good radio feature – a radio feature that you will not soon forget, or when radio feature makers ask the same question, I often quote the French novelist, critic and political activist Emile Zola (1840 – 1902), who in his theories of naturalism explains art thus: “Art is a corner of reality seen through a temperament.”

Clear isn’t it? When it comes to radio feature making, we are dealing with reality – not fiction – but we try to create some kind of art out of composing our story. We do that by having a clear angle or focus on our material as we compose it through our “temperament.”

I find that Still Glowing Strong, this rather short but remarkable feature made by Norwegian Sindre Leganger in 2014, fits well into old Emile Zola’s description.

The author Sindre Leganger is young, he hasn’t made many features yet, and this story just landed on his desk as an email when he worked for NRK’s feature department. At first he did not believe the story because the email mostly talked about technical stuff, but after visiting, talking to and recording Harald, he realised that there was something more in this story than just a feature about a possible invention.

However, Sindre and his NRK editor had doubts about Harald’s voice. Did he speak clearly enough? Cancer had hit his tongue. Harald, the protagonist, was old and sick. But what struck Sindre most at the first meeting was the vitality, but also tension, between wife and husband in the small flat.

Still the story needed more. Very important in this feature is the narrator, the poetic narrator, who of course also is the author, Sindre Leganger. With this narration in a young man’s voice combined with the voice of Harald, the old man, another layer, something bigger was born.

The audience at the Prix Europa in 2014 could hear that; they gave Still Glowing Strong a Special Commendation.

Here we have an extremely focused story about an old man who has a project. He wants to invent an everlasting battery, and he thinks he has already done it.

Harald himself explains it in this way – here translated from Norwegian:

“This is an everlasting battery. There are billions of people who don’t have access to electrical power, but now can get it. If this is confirmed I will claim this is the greatest invention ever made in the history of humankind – if I’m right? That’s why a physicist has to look into it.”

But the test has not yet been made when Sindre meets Harald, so Sindre becomes a helper in the feature. Like in the old fairy tales where a man has a project, and to fulfil it in the fairy tale he gets a helper, but also an enemy. When French structuralist Julien Greimas analysed old fairy tales he talked about the actantial model. A prince wants to marry the princess; the prince has a helper and an enemy. This is the way good stories are always told. Here in the feature about the old inventor, we can use this model to describe how the storytelling works.

Sindre describes Harald, our protagonist in his poetic narration – here translated from Norwegian:

“A skinny man sits stooped over a workbench in his room. In front of him there are tools, wires, small plastic boxes with a grey soup consisting of miscellaneous elements. All of them coupled to a light that never goes out.”

Harald’s wife is not completely the enemy, the antagonist, but she is clearly against Harald’s project. She is sceptical, his surroundings are also rather sceptical, but Harald has someone who believes in him, his grandchild. Every week this other helper according to Greimas’ model, Kjetil, the grandchild comes by. He is 20 years old, the youngest of four grandchildren. He is the only one in the family who supports Harald in his belief in his invention.

So we have two helpers on the stage, the grandson and the author, Sindre Leganger. It is Sindre who ensures that Harald’s invention is going to be tested. Does the everlasting battery function or not? Why has it taken so long? Why have so many years passed by?

Another obstacle – another enemy you would say, is time. The narrator:

“He is 86 years. Half of them he spent in the postal system. Always with a book on physics in his back pocket. A letter going here, a package going there, but Harald had other things on his mind. As an old-age pensioner he could realise his dream. The invention that may save the world. But Harald doesn’t have much time. Perhaps only one year left to live.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle or enemy is time. Harald is not only old, he is also sick from mouth cancer.

NRK is known for technically well produced features where you can hear that time has been used in the studio for the finest editing, the best recordings of narration and an elegant mix. This feature is so well produced that it is very easy to listen to.

But the strength of the feature is its clear focus, this “corner of reality,” as Emile Zola puts it. We as the listeners stay with Harald and his project all the way; we follow him, his wife Borghild, and the grandson, to the testing of the everlasting battery.

You could say we are in a very small universe, but it is a delicate one, and Sindre Leganger develops it with his artistic temperament through a fine narration.

The narration is quiet and well read, close to the microphone, so that acoustically the narration brings another layer into the feature.

Here again is a poetic quotation from Sindre Leganger:

“Twilight in Tveita. The stars are vaguely seen as tiny dots in the night sky. The blocks of flats are quiet and dark. In one window though, there is light. Faint, barely visible, but still a constant light. Night and day.”

The narrator is the same person as the reporter. Together the narrator and the reporter become the author. So you will find three roles for Sindre Leganger: Narrator as we hear it mixed from the studio in the feature; Reporter as we hear Sindre asking his questions and commenting in Harald’s home; and Author. The author is not heard; the author is the person composing by editing.

When Sindre Leganger as reporter is heard he is not so close to the microphone, Sindre as narrator is much closer.

The author and narrator Sindre Leganger of course knows everything, because the narration is made after the recordings. The reporter knows less. He learns things together with us, the listeners.

In the beginning of the feature when we are presented with this old man’s project, we are probably sceptical, like Sindre was at first.

Harald says:

“Cosmos, right. Call it “dark energy.” It’s out there, force fields we don’t see, that are not being made use of. That’s why I think this is a great invention. That’s why I haven’t given up. I’m really quite sure it comes from space. Who would think that it’s this cheap to make a power plant? No one imagines the possibility. But I have the proof here and that’s why I want a physicist to disprove – or confirm.”

Is this man just old and crazy you might think? But then the feature has a turning point. Sindre Leganger helps Harald to make real contact with the world outside his flat to have his everlasting battery tested.

Suddenly something completely new and unforeseen happens. Ola Nielsen, a chemist from the university, comes to Harald’s flat to test his invention:

“OLA NILSEN: (on the phone) Ola Nilsen.

JOURNALIST: (on the phone) I’m calling about a Mr Harald Brobakken who is an 86-years-old man living in Tveita.

OLA NILSEN: In Tveita? That’s quite close to where I’m situated. Well, I do know a few things about batteries, I would say.

JOURNALIST: If you are close to Tveita, would you mind dropping by one day and take a look at it?”

Now as listeners we become completely impatient to hear the verdict. Suspense is built up. At first Ola Nielsen the chemist is very impressed by the old man’s work, but in the end he has to disappoint Harald with his verdict:

“OLA NILSEN: Yes, where does it go? At least it happens through the plate, through your system. So one place or another you have a conductor that runs through this. It means that the humidity around these containers of yours is so high it conducts the ampere necessary. Because this is a cell. You have created a cell. I think your answer lies there.”

Ola Nielsen concludes that instead of an everlasting battery, Harald has made an ordinary battery.

Is this then the end of the drama? No, not at all. We also have an elegant epilogue, because Harald does not give up. Two days after the visit, an e-mail from Harald arrives to the reporter Sindre.

“Hello Sindre. I just want to tell you I didn’t agree with the explanation the chemist presented. Among other things, he said it was humidity that transferred electricity from the battery to the lamps. I have known about the humidity for a long time and I believe I have solved that problem. I’d like to hear an expert give an explanation of how this can take place and I welcome the chemist back again.”

So there is hope. Harald does not give up.

After hearing this feature – we, as listeners, are touched by its quiet strength.

So please listen to the whole feature and take a trip to a block in Tveita in Norway. Enjoy the language, the story, and the composition.

Enjoy the corner of reality told by a Norwegian temperament. Harald, though, gets the last words:

“I would really like to find an explanation of why the lamps are still glowing you know. When I can prove there is no connection between plus and minus the power must come from elsewhere. And the only place that could be is the cosmos.”

Anna Elisabeth (Lisbeth) Jessen is a graduate of the University of Copenhagen, the Danish School of Journalism and the National Film School of Denmark. She has produced features in various genres, from the classical Danish style to programs carried by investigative journalism. Anna Elisabeth won the Prix Italia in 1988 with Why didn’t she ring back? and again in 2003 with After the Celebration, which received a Special Commendation at the Prix Europa the same year. In 2006 she received a Special Commendation at the Prix Italia for Doctor Tramsen’s Report. She has also jointly won national prizes with the Danish Radio Documentary Group. For the last 10 years, Anna Elisabeth has made radio features, television features and documentary films. From 2004 to 2014, she coached emerging talents at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) International Training Master School. Some of her works both for radio and TV have been aired internationally and adapted into other languages. Anna Elisabeth works as an independent author and director, based in Denmark and in Germany.

Jessen, Anna Elisabeth, Still Glowing Strong: Review (Denmark), RadioDoc Review, 2(2), 2015. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/rdr/vol2/iss2/1