The verdict is in: the film Sámi Blood has won the grand jury prize at the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s the latest in a slew of awards the film has garnered. Film researcher Monica Mecsei predicts it will be highly important for Sámi filmmaking and identity.
SÁMI FILM: The film Sámi Blood tells the story of what it was like to grow up Sámi in Sweden in the 1930s, as seen through the experiences of the young girl Elle Marja. Elle Marja is sent to boarding school along with other Sámi children, and the racism that she experiences leads her to break with her Sámi identity and become as Swedish as possible.
The film has attracted international attention with its compelling story about the denial of identity, colonial oppression and racial research on the Sámi population.
Sámi Blood contains scenes of racial biologists who photographed naked boarding school children and measured their skulls. The “researchers” had their own mathematical formulas that they could allegedly match up to each person’s human characteristics.
The film has already won several international awards, including, most recently, the grand jury prize at the Seattle International Film Festival.
International recognition for Sami Blood
• Grand Jury Prize winner, 2017 Seattle International Film Festival
Human Values Award at the 57th Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
• Critics' Fedeora Award for Best Young Director (Amanda Kernell) and Europa Cinemas Label for Best European film at the Venice Film Festival in Italy.
• The Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and Best Actress Award (Lene Cecilia Sparrok).
• Dragon Award Best Nordic Film at the 2017 Göteborg Film Festival.
• Valhalla Award for Best Nordic Film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
“It’s an important film. I think it’ll become as important as Pathfinder has been,” predicts Monica Mecsei. She is writing her PhD dissertation on Sámi film at NTNU’s Department of Art and Media Studies, and is one of very few people in Norway studying Sámi-language films.
Pathfinder was the first Sámi language feature film. It was a huge success when it came out in 1987 and was nominated for an Oscar in the category Best Foreign Language Film.
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Strengthening Sámi identity
“Nothing had been written about Sámi films before and I wanted to find out more. When I began my PhD, I started completely from scratch. I knew nothing about Sámi films and very little about Sámi culture in general. I think that was an advantage, because it allowed me to discuss and analyse the ‘average person’ view of Sámi cultural history,” says Mecsei.
“Film is a powerful medium that reaches a lot of people, and Sámi films have helped strengthen Sámi identity by making their culture more visible and building awareness of common references and shared history,” she adds.
She has focused on four films in the context of the rest of Sámi film history. The films she used as reference movies are: Pathfinder, The Minister of State, Bazo and The Kautokeino Rebellion.
“One characteristic of newer Sámi films is that the experience of loss is often an important aspect of the story, either by indirect references or concrete actions – like loss of language, loss of culture, loss of dignity. Sámi Blood certainly fits into this thematic pattern.
“Let the river live!”
The development of Sámi filmmaking goes hand-in-hand with the historical development of relations between Sámi culture and society at large. Strong protests against developing the Alta-Kautokeino waterway marked a turning point in modern Sámi history. The conflict also marked a turning point in Sámi film history.
The Alta controversy was a political conflict, in which the government stepped in to dam the river and submerge large land areas that were used for reindeer herding, hunting and fishing. This led to massive protests and rebellion in the Sámi population.
Environmental and nature protection groups were also strongly involved in the case, and the popular movement in the late 1970s against development of the Alta-Kautokeino waterway unified the Sámi, and local and national conservation organizations. Numerous large demonstrations followed at the Stilla construction site in Finnmark county and in front of the parliament building in Oslo, where the “Let the river live” slogan sounded a steady beat both on the northern plateau and in Oslo’s downtown.
Norway received harsh international criticism for its treatment of the Sámi people.
The Alta dam was built despite these massive protests. However, the case still had great importance for Sámi identity, creating fertile ground for a new Sámi pride in their own culture and language. This greater sense of self-awareness led to a total reform of Norwegian Sámi policy. The first Sámi Rights Commission was established in 1980, the Norwegian Parliament passed the Sámi Act in 1987, a separate constitutional amendment was adopted to develop the Sámi language, culture and society, and in 1989 the Sámi Parliament was established.
Norway was also the first country to ratify ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which recognizes the Sámi in Norway as an indigenous people with special rights.
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Authenticity is important
Sámi films also reflect this turning point.
Mecsei says Sami filmmaking has shifted from making films about the Sámi people to making Sámi films.
She adds that it used to be Norwegian directors and Norwegian filmmakers who made movies about the Sámi people or that included Sámi characters. But now the Sámi are beginning to convey their history and stories themselves, creating movies and getting involved in film production both in front of and behind the camera.
“Genuineness and authentic storytelling are important,” Mecsei says. “No longer can you just insert some actor that sort of looks like a Sámi to play a Sámi, but now you have to be a Sámi. Moving from an outside perspective to an interior perspective echoes the paradigm shift that is marked in Sámi cultural history by the conflict over the Alta-Kautokeino river. I’m looking at how this turn of events gives new insights into Sámi identity-building through filmmaking.”
Pathfinder – and Ante
Pathfinder remains a significant turning point: a Sámi director tells a Sámi story related to a Sámi legend; the actors are Sámi, a Sámi composer is responsible for much of the music, and the language of the film is Sámi. The film becomes a huge success, and helps strengthen cultural identity and pride.
But before Pathfinder, there was Ante – a television series about a boy of the same name, who is sent away to boarding school, but all he wants is to be on the plateau working with the family’s herd of reindeer. This series was aired on NRK in the mid 1970s, reaching a whole generation of children and youth. Many who don’t remember the content remember the joik theme song – a traditional form of Sámi singing.
“This film was the forerunner of a new trend. For the first time, the joik was an important element in the film, and also importantly, Sámi was spoken. The dark history of Norwegianization was told via the medium of film for the first time. Children and young people learned about a part of Norwegian history that most of them knew little about,” says Mecsei.
She adds, “Ante shaped an entire generation’s idea and awareness of Sámi culture. It was very important in Sámi – and Norwegian – film history, but it hasn’t garnered the same status as some other films, like Pathfinder, probably because the TV series was directed at children.
Both the joik and the Sámi language are referred to as identity markers, or symbols of identity. Identity markers are one tool Mecsei has used to analyse Sámi films.
“I’ve looked at how Sámi identity markers help to create, consolidate and change notions of cultural identity. Language and joik became important identity markers from the 1970s onwards,” she says.
After centuries of assimilation policies, the Sámi language stands out as an extremely important symbol in the Sámi community in general. Other identity markers are traditional Sámi clothing and reindeer.
“The way I remember it, Pathfinder was full of reindeer. But when I saw the film again, I discovered that there were actually very few reindeer in the film, only indirectly through clothing, jewellery and everyday objects,” Mecsei says.
The four films that Mecsei has focused on in her work, from Pathfinder to Kautokeino Rebellion, were created over a period of more than 20 years, so the films were few and far between. But now Mecsei thinks a wave of Sámi films is in the works.
This is partly due to the creation of International Sámi Film Institute (ISFI) and their involvement in the productions. ISFI has also been a driving force behind Sámi Blood.
“Sámi films are having an unprecedented boom. It’s only now that we can talk about an independent Sámi film culture, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing steadily more Sámi productions in appear,” she says.