The Sami, the indigenous people of far northern Europe and Russia, are ready to share their stories with the world. But only under certain conditions, explains Liisa Holmberg, film commissioner of the International Sami Film Institute (ISFI).
“The most important thing is respect,” she notes, mentioning the Pathfinder Film Protocol – a set of guidelines and questions for non-Sami filmmakers named after Nils Gaup’s 1987 Oscar-nominated drama.
“While the Sami people may not have the same opportunities/resources to tell their stories, why am I the right person to [do it]? How will my film production benefit the Sami community and what am I giving back? Is it right for me to occupy this space? “, he says.
“People started getting interested in indigenous stories, but they were doing them without us. We can’t stop them, but we can ask to be included,” says Holmberg.
Unlike the first part of the popular franchise, “Frozen II” was made in cooperation with Sami representatives. But the conversation about who should be at the helm continues.
“Non-Sami filmmakers keep saying, ‘We’re not hurting you. We help you. But why can’t you have a director, a screenwriter, a producer who is Sami? When we tell our stories, we create our future,” she says.
“[In the past] we have been portrayed as “mysterious” or as primitive idiots who are always drunk. Is this what we want our children to see? Moreover, the work of reindeer herders is not “primitive”, even if some like exoticism. For us, it’s everyday life.
As Venice’s Sámi pavilion draws crowds and new initiatives – like the Sapmifilm streaming service – and films keep pouring in, from Liselotte Wajstedt’s ‘Silence in Sápmi’ to ‘Through a Reindeer Herder’s Eyes’ Aslak Paltto, Holmberg would like to see more.
“It has been six years since [Amanda Kernell’s] ‘Sami blood.’ Do we always have to wait that long? she asks herself.
With Netflix adapting Ann-Helén Laestadius’ novel “Stolen” and reading Katja Gauriloff’s “Je’vida”, the first film in the Skolt Sámi language, the wait might be over.
“I didn’t inherit the language myself and it caused trauma that I now process through films,” says Gauriloff. Adding that people who raise their children in Skolt Sámi are always under enormous pressure.
“It is important that the Sami people themselves tell our stories, whatever the subject. We should have the right to determine our identity and the right to practice our own cultural heritage and traditional livelihoods. Is it too much to ask?
Based on several true stories, “Je’vida” – produced by October – will be a visual and chronological continuation of his acclaimed and “healing” documentary “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest”.
“I hope ‘Je’vida’ will spark conversations about indigenous peoples. I do not understand that we still do not have the right to live freely, to determine the use of our lands or even to define ourselves. Not even in Finland.
Petteri Saario, now behind the new documentary “Rap and Reindeer” and the next “Operation Saimaa Seal”, however thinks that other filmmakers should also have the right to make documentaries on the Sami.
“We worked closely with the community. It’s more a matter of perspective and attitude than anything else,” he says.
While his first feature documentary ‘The Beckhams of Utsjoki’ is about modern Sami life through the experiences of one family, he now hopes to engage young viewers by focusing on rapper Mihkku Laiti, known as Yungmiqu .
“It is important to show the Sami community that their culture is changing. The young Sami want to keep some of their traditions but also create new ones,” he adds. The film will premiere on February 6, 2023, the Sami National Day.
“Things are never black or white, but whenever a non-Sami wants to tell a Sami story, it [comes down to the fact] that we are not considered good enough. There is a connection between colonialism and our stories being stolen from us,” says director Suvi West.
Already behind “Eatnameamet – Our Silent Struggle”, she is now working on her first fiction feature film “Johan Johanaš” with Tekele Production attached.
“When I started, almost 20 years ago, I heard that I shouldn’t tell Sami stories because I’m ‘too involved’. Being Sami in the Finnish film industry means that most likely, I will never be considered a real filmmaker. I will always be this ethnic curiosity,” she says.
“I like to dream that one day, I will be seen at least as a ‘woman filmmaker’. I’m not sure that can ever happen.
Recently, she was awarded the State Prize for Public Information.
“It was a surprise because critical Sami voices are not always appreciated in Finland. They want us to be exotic, apolitical, like children who don’t criticize [anyone] or don’t talk about colonialism.
“This award shows that something may be changing. Maybe they want to hear the voice of our people.
“We’re often told that film foundations can’t fund us because they don’t understand the story and neither do their audiences,” Holmberg adds.
“They say it’s not ‘Finnish enough’, for example, and it’s true – it shouldn’t be. It’s Sami. But Disney did a Sami story and it grossed $1.4 billion worldwide.
The Pathfinder film protocol can be downloaded here.