Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Finding a child with as much screen presence as Niemenmaa would be impressive in any circumstances."

It’s a story which will be familiar to you if you have ever paid attention to colonial history; a story played out again and again around the world. Indigenous children brutally inculcated into the values of the dominant culture, shamed into shedding the trappings of their own, even to the point of forgetting their native languages. Familiarity never lessens the horror of it. Specificity is what brings such films to life, and Je’vida has plenty of that. There is an element of resistance, even of triumph, in this film’s very existence, as it is the first feature ever to be made in the Skolt Sámi dialect, which has only 300 remaining speakers.

Je’vida is the given name of its heroine, though she now goes by Iida. The scene in which her name changes is one of the most distressing in the whole film. Played as a sixtysomething adult by Sanna-Kaisa Palo, she is accompanying her niece Sanna on a trip into the northern forest to clear out the house where she grew up, readying it for sale. She and Sanna hardly know each other and there is resentment attached to that, the younger woman keen to know more about her roots and unable to understand why her aunt is so reticent. Under pressure as she is confronted by all her old memories, the older woman gradually faces up to her troubled past and begins to reclaim her identity.

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The film is presented in three parts. There is the surrounding story about this journey and the process of clearing out the house, a modest lakeside cabin hemmed in by trees. There is an extensive reflection on the experiences of Je’vida as a little girl (played by Agafia Niemenmaa), and there is a section dealing with her life as a young woman (played by Heidi Juliana Gauriloff). The former two are the most engaging, as the latter has little to do except to show us that life on Finnish terms was not always unhappy, and to explain why she moved away from the north. All the actors are impressive, which is remarkable when one considers the smallness of the population from which they were drawn.

Finding a child with as much screen presence as Niemenmaa would be impressive in any circumstances. She has to do a lot more than just look cute, and much of what she does involves communicating without dialogue. Parts of her story are heavy-handed – notably a scene in which she is given a test by an official visitor to the little cabin – but elsewhere, single incidents stand in for what the extras’ faces tell us was a ubiquitous and ongoing process of abuse. There’s great chemistry between Niemenmaa and Erkki Gauriloff, who plays her grandfather, which comes to the fore in scenes when they are fishing out on the lake, which provide a natural opportunity to reflect on the Sámi tradition of taking only as much as one needs and keeping natural resources in good condition for future generations.

The referencing of this value system emphasises that there’s more to Sámi life than embroidered headdresses and knitted boots. A funeral scene illustrates the way that traditional ritual practices came to exist side by side with Christianity, often overlapping. The emphasis here is not on showcasing difference, however; the film draws on experiences of loss, social exclusion and, later, romance, to build empathy and make room for its Sámi characters as fully rounded human beings. As the older version of our heroine gets to grips with these things, she may finally be able to shed her internalised feelings of shame and pass on something important to Sanna, ensuring that her heritage is not lost.

Shot in a richly toned black and white which brings out the important details of the boreal landscape, Je’vida is an ode to the importance of home, family and a sense of belonging. A follow-up to director Katja Gauriloff’s Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, which screened at the Berlinale in 2017, it featured in Tribeca 2023, and constitutes the next step in putting the Skolt Sámi firmly on the map.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2023
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When embittered Sámi elder Je’vida returns to her childhood home to ready it for sale, she is flooded with the memories of a life shaped by deep systemic racism and the unyielding love of her grandfather, leading to a life-changing epiphany.

Director: Katja Gauriloff

Writer: Katja Gauriloff, Niillas Holmberg

Starring: Agafia Niemenmaa, Heidi Juliana Gauriloff, Sanna-Kaisa Palo, Seidi Haarla, Erkki Gauriloff, Matleena Fofonoff

Year: 2023

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Finland

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