‘An Impossible Task’: Finland’s Katja Gauriloff on Making ‘Je’vida,’ the First Skolt Sámi-Language Film

Finnish director Katja Gauriloff won the top prize this week at the Finnish Film Affair’s showcase of fiction works in progress for “Je’vida,” an intimate historical drama that is the first film ever shot in the Skolt Sámi language.

The film centers on Iida, an elderly Skolt Sámi woman who finds herself in the process of selling her family’s old house and land while keeping her cultural heritage secret from her niece. It’s the story of a woman who has abandoned her past under the pressures of assimilation, weaving across three different historical eras to examine the fate of Finland’s Indigenous peoples in the post-war period.

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“Je’vida” is a deeply personal journey for Gauriloff, a Skolt Sámi filmmaker who has spent her life reckoning with the group’s struggle for survival since World War II, when most of their ancestral homeland was lost to Russia. “All the people were evacuated to [modern-day] Finland,” said the director, whose mother was born in Skolt Sámi native territory in 1942. “We lost our lands. We lost our identity. So I wanted to make a film about that.”

Accomplishing that was something she long believed to be “an impossible task.” The Skolt Sámi are part of the larger Sámi Indigenous group found across Norway, Sweden and Finland. Their language is believed to be spoken by only around 300 people in Finland.

Gauriloff did not learn her native tongue as a child, when she was growing up in a small Finnish town. “I thought it was only my problem, because I didn’t have this Sámi community close to me at that time,” she said. “But then, when I started to really research my background and my roots, I realized that it’s not only 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 around the Samiland region, as well as the stories the director heard from the women in her household as a child.

Speaking to Variety this week in Helsinki, Gauriloff recalled a particular story from her childhood. “When my mom was 8 or 9 years old, she was practically living with her grandparents and helping them a lot. Her grandpa didn’t let her go to residential school; he didn’t want her to go anywhere to ‘be ruined.’ But then grandpa suddenly died, and she was heartbroken,” said the director.

It was winter as the family prepared the body for burial. One night, Gauriloff’s mother snuck from her room to see his corpse before it was interred. Years later, the director imagined what would have happened if she had discovered him still alive. “This was the main idea of the film: a small girl having peculiar discussions with her late grandpa,” said Gauriloff. “This is where it all started.”

“Je’vida” is not the filmmaker’s first attempt to wrestle with the intersection of personal history and her people’s past: Her last documentary feature, “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest,” told the story of a foreign writer’s lifelong fascination with an isolated Laplander race and their mythologies, centering 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 delightful and distinctive enough to attract specialized exposure beyond the fest circuit.”

“Je’vida” was one of seven fiction feature works in progress that were pitched to an audience of industry guests in Helsinki on Sept. 22, during the Finnish Film Affair’s showcase of local and regional projects. Currently in post-production, the film is produced by Joonas Berghäll (Oktober), who has worked with Gauriloff for more than 20 years and described her as “an amazing example” for the young Sámi inspired by her career path. “I have seen how young Sámi who want to be filmmakers, how they look at Katja,” he said.

Gauriloff is, in turn, inspired by them. She is studying Skolt Sámi in part so she can “pass something on to my son,” whose generation has benefited from efforts to revive Sámi culture. It is nevertheless a struggle to preserve a dying way of life. “Things are getting better,” she said. “But we lost so much.”

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