Finnish director Katja Gauriloff took the top prize this week at the Finnish Film Affair’s showcase of fictional works in progress for ‘Je’vida’, an intimate historical drama that is the first film ever shot in the Skolt-Sámi language.
The film revolves around Iida, an elderly Skolt Sámi woman who is busy selling her family’s old house and land, while keeping her cultural heritage a secret from her niece. It is the story of a woman who has left her past behind under the pressure of assimilation, weaving through three different historical eras to investigate the fate of Finland’s indigenous peoples in the post-war era.
“Je’vida” is a deeply personal journey for Gauriloff, a Skolt Sámi filmmaker who has spent her life considering the group’s struggles for survival since World War II, when most of their ancestral homeland was lost to Russia. “All people were evacuated to [modern-day] Finland,” said the director, whose mother was born in 1942 in Skolt Sámi’s native country. “We have lost our country. We have lost our identity. So I wanted to make a film about that.”
That was something she long considered “an impossible task.” The Skolt Sámi are part of the larger Sámi indigenous group found in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Their language is believed to be spoken by only about 300 people in Finland.
Gauriloff did not learn her native language as a child, growing up in a small Finnish town. “I thought it was just my problem because I didn’t have that Sami community close to me at the time,” she said. “But when I really started researching my background and my roots, I realized it’s not just my problem: it’s a whole generation.”
Using a cast largely made up of non-professional Indigenous actors, “Je’vida” was inspired by Gauriloff’s travels through the Samiland region, as well as the stories the director heard from the women in her household as a child.
Speak with Variety this week in Helsinki, Gauriloff recalled a special story from her childhood. “When my mother was 8 or 9 years old, she practically lived with her grandparents and helped them a lot. Her grandfather didn’t let her go to high school; he didn’t want her to go somewhere “to be ruined.” But then Grandpa died suddenly, and she was heartbroken,” the director said.
It was winter when the family prepared the body for burial. One night, Gauriloff’s mother snuck out of her room to see his corpse before it was buried. Years later, the director imagined what would have happened if she had discovered him alive. “This was the main idea of the film: a little girl having strange discussions with her late grandfather,” Gauriloff said. “This is where it all started.”
“Je’vida” isn’t the filmmaker’s first attempt at grappling with the intersection of personal history and her people’s past: her latest documentary, “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest,” told the story of a foreign writer’s lifelong fascination for an isolated Laplander race and their mythologies, centered on Gauriloff’s great-grandmother, a venerable storyteller in her remote Arctic village. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016 and was described by Variety as “easily delectable and distinctive enough to attract specialist fame outside the party circuit.”
“Je’vida” was one of seven fictional feature works in progress presented to an audience of industry guests in Helsinki on September 22, during the screening of local and regional projects by the Finnish Film Affair. The film is currently in post-production and is being produced by Joonas Berghäll (October), who has worked with Gauriloff for over 20 years and described her as “a great role model” for the young Sámi, inspired by her career path. “I’ve seen how young Sámi who want to be filmmakers, how they look at Katja,” he said.
Gauriloff, in turn, is inspired by them. She studies Skolt Sámi in part so she can “pass something to my son,” whose generation has benefited from efforts to revive Sami culture. It is nevertheless a struggle to maintain a dying way of life. “It’s getting better,” she said. “But we lost so much.”