Finnish director Katja Gauriloff won top prize this week at the Finnish Film Affair’s Works in Progress Fiction showcase for ‘Je’vida’, an intimate historical drama that is the first film ever made in the Skolt Sámi language. .
The film centers on Iida, an elderly Skolt Sámi woman who finds herself selling her family’s former home and land while keeping her cultural heritage a secret from her niece. It is the story of a woman who abandoned her past under the pressure of assimilation, traveling through three different historical eras to examine the fate of Finland’s indigenous peoples in the post-war period.
“Je’vida” is a deeply personal journey for Gauriloff, a Skolt Sámi filmmaker who has spent her life reckoning with the group’s struggle for survival since World War II, when most of their ancestral homeland was lost to the benefit of Russia. “All the people were evacuated to [modern-day] Finland,” said the director, whose mother was born in Skolt Sámi’s native territory in 1942. “We lost our land. We have lost our identity. So I wanted to make a film about it.
To accomplish this was something she had long believed to be “an impossible task”. The Skolt Sámi are part of the largest Sámi indigenous group found in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Their language is thought to be spoken by only about 300 people in Finland.
Gauriloff didn’t learn her native language as a child, growing up in a small Finnish town. “I thought it was just my problem, because I didn’t have this Sami community around me at that time,” she said. “But then when I started to really research my background and my roots, I realized it wasn’t just my problem: it was a whole generation.”
Using a cast largely made up of non-professional indigenous actors, “Je’vida” is inspired by Gauriloff’s travels in the Samiland region, as well as the stories the director heard from the women of her household when she was child.
Talk to Variety this week in Helsinki, Gauriloff recalled a particular story from his childhood. “When my mother was 8 or 9 years old, she practically lived with her grandparents and helped them a lot. Her grandfather didn’t let her go to boarding school; he didn’t want her to go somewhere to “be ruined.’ But then grandpa died suddenly and she was heartbroken,” the director said.
It was winter as the family prepared the body for burial. One night, Gauriloff’s mother snuck out of his room to see his corpse before it was buried. Years later, the director imagined what would have happened if she had discovered him still alive. “That was the main idea of the film: a little girl having strange discussions with her late grandfather,” Gauriloff said. “This is where it all started.”
“Je’vida” isn’t the filmmaker’s first attempt to grapple with the intersection of her people’s personal history and past: her latest feature-length documentary, “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest,” tells the story of a foreign writer’s fascination with an isolated Lapland race and their mythologies, centered on Gauriloff’s great-grandmother, a venerable storyteller in her remote Arctic village. The film premiered at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival and was portrayed by Variety as “easily delicious and distinctive enough to attract specialist exposure beyond the festival circuit”.
“I’vida” was one of seven ongoing fiction feature films that were presented to an audience of invited industry guests in Helsinki on September 22, during the Affair local and regional projects showcase. Finnish film. Currently in post-production, the film is produced by Joonas Berghäll (Oktober), who worked with Gauriloff for more than 20 years and described her as “an incredible role model” for the young Sámi inspired by her journey. “I saw how young Sami people who want to be filmmakers, how they look at Katja,” he said.
Gauriloff is inspired by it in turn. She is partly studying Skolt Sami so she can “pass something on to my son,” whose generation has benefited from efforts to revive Sami culture. Yet it is a fight to preserve a dying way of life. “Things are looking up,” she said. “But we have lost so much.”
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