Bringing the stories home

Suvi West and Anssi Kömi on the repatriation of artefacts from museums and making Homecoming

by Jennie Kermode

Sámi artefacts stored in the Museum of European Culture in Berlin
Sámi artefacts stored in the Museum of European Culture in Berlin Photo: Anssi Kömi

Wherever you live, the chances are that you have heard a number of stories, over the years, about efforts to have items held in museums in powerful colonial countries repatriated to their places of origin. It’s a hot button issue in many places, but never more so than for people whose cultures were subject to deliberate attempts at erasure, and who need every available opportunity to reconnect with what has been taken from them before it’s too late and key knowledge is lost. A quiet, thoughtful film at the eye of this storm of controversy is Suvi West and Anssi Kömi’s Homecoming, which follows efforts to restore Sámi artefacts in an amicable process which nevertheless evokes strong emotions.

The film screened as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with both directors in attendance, and happily they were able to find time to meet and discuss their work.

“We started this process around four years ago,” Suvi began. “Sometimes it's impossible to remember the reasons why you did things. It's more like we felt that it's what we have to do. Obviously, it is a huge historical repatriation, what happened in Finland, and we felt that we need to document this. Maybe one of the reason is that I have, as a Sámi filmmaker, been getting questions of representation so long, and we know how much museums tell stories, I think that was one of the central questions I was dealing in my own life. And that maybe triggered me to do that. But otherwise, we weren't sure where the story would take us.”

There are individual stories attached to all of the artefacts. It is noted partway through that the curators wanted the items, but not the stories, so a lot of those items were exhibited with misleading stories. The frequent colonial argument is that museums are teaching people about those items, but they seem to have been doing the opposite.

Anssi agrees. “It feels that what you said. When the collectors got to our lands – and some of them were stolen violently – they just took items. I feel strongly now that the picture museums often show is quite a broken image, without deeper knowledge, which you can feel in the film. When we were doing the film and items came back to their homeland, the Sámi people there can read the language in the items, and similar processes are still alive. So I hope that this goes further in future with the museums.”

Everybody would benefit, he says, if more items were in the hands of the people whose cultures they belong to.

“When the items can go back to the home where they came from, there is a lot more knowledge to be collected. Museums get much more content for the people and much more real information. For now there is an item that was found somewhere and there’s no knowledge of the real story behind the item and behind the people that it was taken away from.”

“Viewing this process, it has been quite surprising to understand that actually, even those artefacts that are shown in the museums can have wrong information,” Suvi adds. “Like in the Finnish National Museum, there's one drum, and it even has the wrong material information. I also went to the National Museum of Norway, Oslo, and there's one Sámi item that also has false information.

“When we go to the museums and we read something about it an item from Egypt or Mexico or somewhere, and we believe everything that is said about the item – after this process, we have started to understand that maybe it is not the absolute truth. Maybe it's just the story that is told by a certain kind of narrative. It's like a colonial gaze that the story is being told through, in museums that tell you that it's absolute fact and the absolute truth.

“I think it is important what we witnessed, with people and their items. Of course, the film is 75 minutes long and it contains various themes, so we we weren't able to put in all the stories that people told about the items, or all the beautiful, touching, emotional stories, or a lot of the knowledge. But I don't think that this is only a Sámi thing. I think this concerns a lot of nations around the world, especially indigenous people and oppressed nations. I think this is a universal thing.

“If the nations like Sámi want the items, I think there's no reasons why they wouldn't be able to repatriate. It doesn't mean that everything should be repatriated. It's not a black and white thing. But I think that many times they should. Repatriation doesn't mean the end of the museums because the work continues. What we understood between the Finnish National Museum and the Sámi museum Siida, where they repatriated this collection, actually, they started to work together beautifully. They had beautiful co-exhibitions, and items also travelled around the world. So I don't think repatriation is more the end of the museum, it's more...”

“...a new time,” says Anssi, as she nods in agreement. “it’s a new future for the museum, a chance for the museum to reinvent itself.”

“Yeah, and a chance for museums also to get rid of the colonial past, which must be heavy for them to carry too,” says Suvi.

I mention the recent scandal at the British Museum, where it emerged that items had been solen over a period of at least three years, which undermines the argument that items out to be in such places to keep them safe.

“They are looked after really well in the Sámi lands right now,” says Suvi of the recovered artefacts. “They built a new storage room, very modern, with a filter to protect the Sámi items, and that was, of course, also one of the reasons they were able to do the repatriation. But then there's another angle, which is maybe a Sámi ideological thing: I know that there's some discussions about should items live forever, or are items also allowed to kind of go to the other side? Also, which one is important: to preserve an item in the filter, behind the locked doors, instead of having an actual live connection with people who live today. If I could like study how everything is made, in that way I could keep that tradition going forward to the future instead of this ‘nobody sees this and nobody touches this.’ I know that they are taking good care of the items and they are not letting them pass to the other side, but that's one of the discussions too.”

There’s also discussion of the importance of artefacts in helping people to feel a connection to their ancestors.

“I don't think the museums are the ones who preserve that, but I think museums have the possibility to open that discussion and to open that connection if they want to,” says Suvi. “I think the connection to ancestors can be found in different ways. Sometimes it's easier if you have concrete artefact with you, but it's not necessary. You can also find your ancestors in different ways.”

There are some interesting conversations about authenticity, and outsiders’ unrealistic idea of what Sámi people are like.

“That was one of the main reasons we were so interested in the story, because as a Sámi filmmaker, this is exactly the question of representation that I've been struggling with,” she says. “I'm here now in Toronto, spending nights in a hotel, I’m speaking English, I’m making films, I’m highly educated – so am I authentic enough anymore, in the eyes of outsiders? That's something that is called ethnostress and it’s being brought by outside researchers to our communities.

“We have never been good enough for them. First, they wanted us to be more civilised, and then when we were civilised, we weren’t good enough. First they say ‘Be more civilised,’ then they said ‘Don't be so civilised.’ It has a huge impact impact in our society. We talk a lot about that, ethnostress and what we carry with us. It’s a kind of a double standard, a demand that you should be, at the same time, capable of living in the modern society as a filmmaker, and at the same time have very traditional standards. So you are authentic of the life of the outsider.

“This is one of the key questions. It has been a theme of my personal life for years already, and I've been dealing with this question in the master’s thesis and writing I've been doing. Originally this theme was supposed to be bigger in the film, but then we didn't want to put too much focus on it.”

It seems like a trap, because if people stop being Sámi when they start to be able to tell their stories, then no Sámi people can tell their stories.

“Yeah. Because we are people want us to be like objects instead of subjects. They don't want us to be filmmakers. When I started my career I was even told ‘Maybe you shouldn't direct. Maybe you should just be an object for other people to make films about.” It was painful to have to deal with that, she says, but with a hint of humour in her voice which shows that she hasn’t lost sight of how ridiculous the suggestion was.

Most of us know how ugly colonialism can get, but there are some really egregious examples here, including grave robbing carried out under the pretext of scientific research, and the exhibiting of Sámi people in zoos. Were Suvi and Anssi familiar with this at the outset, or did they discover some of it as they went along?

“I knew about this,” Suvi says. “Our previous film is Our Silent Struggle, and it dealt with colonialism. I am very aware of what has happened. But what was surprising for me is all the emotions, because I really thought that I had done with this feeling, that I could look at it in a more objective way, but no, it was surprising for me to feel this so deeply, even though it felt like it's not my sorrow. It's more like a collective sorrow and that sorrow comes from far away.”

There were a number of Sámi people looking at the recovered items together in the process documented here, and there must have been a lot of shared grief and a lot of shared difficult emotions around that.

“Yeah,” she says, “but also it was so important to see how many of them felt so deeply connected. And I also learned so much from them. But then there was this other feeling, too. And the other feeling was that, since I didn't find my personal items, it felt that I was totally an outsider of this process. I felt like, you know, ‘I'm so happy for you, but I'm not having that connection right now.’ And when we screened the film for the people who were part of the film, one came to thank us, that we shared also that side, that it's not always so easy to have that connection. And sometimes you feel that you are outsider. For one Sámi person, it was really meaningful that he said that out loud, because she has felt similar feelings. So I think it was kind of an up and down road during the years. Sometimes it felt very emotional. Sometimes it felt like I don't get it.”

The film ends on a positive note, and does something which, to my mind, we don’t see often enough in films about mistreated groups of people, which is to show them experiencing joy.

“For us, filmmaking and storytelling is an intuitive process and don't know how the story will end, but I would always want to end with hope,” Suvi says. “I think it's important because we need hope more than anything. But with our previous film, we couldn’t end it with hope, unfortunately, and I was struggling with that. Is that an ethical choice or not, to leave people without that release? But maybe it's also how we are as individuals, because I see hope everywhere. So it was maybe an easy choice to leave with hope and love, because that's also the essence how we see the world.”

“And also we felt it through the process,” adds Anssi. “People really were happy. It was what happened, so it felt right.”

“ I started my career with a crazy comedy, and then I ended up more and more going for serious documentaries, and human rights and individuals, rights,” Suvi continues. “Now I feel that for indigenous people, it's time for us to also see hope and laughter And, yeah, we need also joyful stories. Actually, indigenous people, we are very funny people, and we have a lot of comedy and humour around, but we are not able just to share it. And I think after doing this story, telling the stories about colonialism and collective pain and trauma, I think next step is to breathe a little bit so we can carry on, so we can have the strength to be what we are. I think it's very important to also show different kinds of narratives for the sake of our children and our youth. And I think it's necessary for me as an individual to go back to my roots as a storyteller and maybe find the ways to tell different kinds of stories.

“I think I need to take a break from being like the spokesperson of my people and just dive into the soul more. Next thing, I think I need to do something funnier and do the questions that matter to me as an individual instead of dealing with the questions that matter to the whole nation.”

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