Reclaiming roots

Katja Gauriloff on making the first ever film in Skolt Sámi, Je’vida

by Jennie Kermode

Je'vida Photo: Iikka Jaakola

When an older woman returns to the remote house where she once lived with her grandparents, sorting through old family possessions to decide what to keep and what to burn, she feels shame and discomfort around them. Pressure from her niece, who doesn’t understand why, prompts her to reflect on the course of her life and the way that her Skolt Sámi heritage was methodically stripped away from her, so that eventually she can regain confidence in herself. This is Je’vida, Katja Gauriloff’s very personal exploration of what happened to her people. I first caught it during Tribeca, but when it subsequently screened in Toronto I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to Katja about it.

Despite all the difficult and distressing issues which the film addresses, I suggest to her that it feels, in itself, like a triumph over colonialism. Getting a film like this made is a huge step forwards.

“It feels great,” she says. “It was big dream for me for about 15 years: one day I want to make this film. Now it’s done, I'm relieved. I'm waiting for the chance to show it to my people. But we had a great response here in Toronto.”

It must have been really challenging to make a film with such a small group of people to draw on. How did she find actors within a community of some 300 native speakers?

“Yeah, that was the biggest challenge, but suddenly, I don't know, it was maybe meant to happen. I had of course only a few people to cast. I found this girl (Agafia Niemenmaa) and I talked with her mother, and we did a scene with her. And I realised ‘Okay, this is amazing. I don't need to cast anybody else. That’s her.’

“The rest of the cast, they’re all my relatives. We are a very small people. I tested my closest cousin (Heidi Juliana Gauriloff) as Je’vida when she's a young woman, and I think it was also meant to be. It's her. She did amazing work also. With other people I had to think ‘Who can I put to act with this little girl?’ The people had to be really sensitive and super safe, and nice to work with, with the kid. So, of course, I didn't have so many options either.

“The grandfather actor is a cousin of my mother, and I called him. ‘Are you interested in this? Can we talk?’ And he was like, ‘No, no.’ He wanted to stay in the forest alone with his dog, and hunt and fish and I don't know. He said ‘I cannot. I can't act. Nope.’ I said ‘Please don't say no, because I don't have anybody else. Can we even talk?’ And I went to see him and we talked about the script. He didn't say anything. He was just contemplating. And then as I was leaving, I said ‘Can you do this?’ and he said ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ I really had to do everything to convince people that they could do it, because they're natural actors. They're all storytellers. It is in our make-up. We are all storytellers.”

I tell her that I think the scenes with the grandfather and the young Je’vida are really good, and that I like the way that he takes the opportunity to talk about the duty to care for the environment. Was that the actor’s own way of thinking?

“It’s the old way of thinking,” she says. “We only take what we need and not more. And, yeah, it's a philosophy I wanted to put in the film. And it's not only my people – the whole Sámi community and, I think, indigenous people around the world understand what it means.”

It seems a very relevant philosophy for today, I say, and she agrees. We move on to talk about the cinematography and her decision to shoot in black and white.

“I love black and white,” she says. “I was inspired by my own previous film, Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, that is a documentary about my family and what happened before the war when we lost our native lands. And I found the box of 16mm material in Spain, about my people, about my family. I loved to work with archive material in black and white. With black and white, it's also super nice because we're talking about memory and dreams, so at a very concrete level it helped with the process of making this, by taking everything extra out of the picture.

“I was looking at this old material I've found, but also there's a lot of photography, black and white, beautiful photographs of our family and people that are taken by outsider photographers, as researchers. There's a lot of that. I think Sámi people are one of the most researched peoples in the world. So there is a lot of old material. It’s very familiar to me too, because we have these photos in our family albums. Now, with this project, I wanted to reclaim these images back to us, as our stories, and I wanted to use kind of the same kind of imagery.”

This, I say, reminds me of the scenes in which the older Je’vida is looking back at things from her childhood and thinking through her life in a different way.

She nods. “The idea came from my mother. She also left the community and she had this beautiful black and white picture of herself when she was 20 years old. I didn't know the story behind the picture. I didn't know if it was taken by some researcher or something like that. But later on, I started to research. And yeah, it's been with my mother, that picture, all her life, but there is something that she never told me behind behind the picture. So it's an idea that I wanted to bring into a film, that they find a picture of what happened and she won’t admit that because there is this niece who doesn't know anything about anything. And it's also about her name, because she has to change the name to a Finnish name. So she would take the picture and say her name, her original name.”

Going back to what she said when we were talking about the environment and the philosophies that indigenous people have around the world, I venture that a lot of people will relate to the parts of the story about having one’s culture taken away, and feeling ashamed afterwards.

“Yeah, yeah. It's been happening to people, and it caused a lot of generational trauma. My people but maybe, also, many communities will understand this film, the whole indigenous world. But also I think it's somehow a universal story also, because at least yesterday at the screening people came to talk to me that okay, this kind of thing’s happening in my family, and they really understood. I think we're talking about roots, and we all have them, no matter what culture you have. It's important not to lose your roots. It can be traumatic.

“We have this truth and reconciliation project process starting in Finland and also in in Sweden. Norway already had it, but now we have it in Finland and I hope that this film can be part of the discussion. Because I don't believe in reconciliation, but we have to talk the truth. We have to talk about what has happened and now we have a chance. I hope the government really listen and believe this happened.

“I hope that this film helps people to open up and inspires people to talk their stories because there's too many people that never really dealt with it and there are, of course, psychological problems for people because they cannot talk. I don't know if the balance is right or wrong. I cannot say before I show this to my people and hear their reactions.

“It was a long process of writing with my writing partner (Niillas Holmberg), who is also Sámi. He is a poet and author so it was very, very natural work to make this. There's a lot of symbolism. I don't know how we balanced it, but I hope it's right.”

I reassure her that I think it works, and she seems relieved, still unaware of the real power of what she has achieved. I ask if it might be the start of a process of making more Sámi films, and she says that she hopes so.

“I already have a grant for the next film. I’m in the writing process. I think I’ll go deeper into the oral story part to see what I find there, and not so much this kind of narrative way. I have crazy ideas.” She laughs. “I will take time to develop the new story, but it’s going to be crazy.”

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