• Interviews

“Je’vida”, a Story about Skolt Sámi Woman’s Assimilation and Finding Hope

Award-winning film director Katja Gauriloff’s new movie, Je’vida is a story about the importance of discovering and accepting your roots. An aunt and her niece meet for the first time when they drive to Finnish Lapland to empty a house they’ve inherited.

Upon finding the traditional headdress of an indigenous Skolt Sámi wife, a šaamšiǩ, the house starts to speak to Je’vida or Iida (Sanna-Kaisa Palo), how she’s been called since she started her school. There are some good memories with her family, especially fishing trips done by traditional net with her grandfather, and some suppressed, painful and shameful memories from the time she lived far away from where she belonged. In school she learned how to speak, read and write in Finnish, Christian values were forced on her but the main teaching was to deny her roots and mother language often in humiliating ways and be ashamed of herself.

She’s been a victim of the assimilation policies and lost interest in her heritage. That frustrates her niece Sanna (Seidi Haarla). She would like to learn something about her family’s background but so far, she has faced only silence. After spending a little time in a remote land in Lapland, in her childhood home, Iida connects with the uprooted child, Je’vida, and goes through an internal transformation.

Je’vida premiered at Tribeca Film Festival where Katja Gauriloff was promoting the first feature film in the Skolt Sámi language in history. The tribe preserves one of the most endangered dialects in Europe with approximately 300 speakers.

Sámi community that is made up of just 80,000 people are the last indigenous people in Europe. In Finland there are 10,000 Sámi people. They have long hoped for the right to greater self-governance like decision-making power over the natural resources that they depend on the north of the country; a possibility to fish, hunt reindeer like their ancestors, and define their own identity and have greater decision-making power over projects that affect the areas in which they reside. Gauriloff tells via Zoom what inspired her to make Je’vida.


Why did you choose to tell Je’vida’s story?

I got inspiration from my mother who has told me stories about Skolt Sámi all my life. She shared what happened to her as a child and in her youth, what our relatives and ancestors went through but unfortunately, she couldn’t pass me the language. Also, my great-grandmother was a great storyteller and an important person in our community. I made my previous film, the documentary Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, about her. It takes place before the Second World War. Je’vida is a bit like a chronological continuation even though it’s fiction with some dream-like scenes. It takes place after the Second World War. And of course, I wanted to tell about my background, my people, our people and what kind of transgenerational trauma assimilation has cost.

Can you tell a bit more about Skolt Sámi language and culture? How is it different from other Sámi languages?

There’s over all nine different Sámi languages and in Finland there’s three Sámi languages. Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken, Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi are the smallest. Skolt Sámi’s roots are in the east and it has some influences from other eastern groups.

Skolt Sámi people like all Sámi people faced suppressed, painful and shameful assimilation policies in Finland. You show them through Je’vida’s experiences as a young kid in a school. Can you talk about the process when she was bullied by the teacher, forced to eat and get rid of her traditional shoes and her identity and became Iida in front of everybody? How did you find the right tone to film those scenes?

I was working with children and wanted to make sure it was a safe work environment for everyone even though the scenes were intense. We planned everything carefully, talked about what was going on and rehearsed as many times as needed. In the end it was important to me that it felt that we were playing around with kids. For the film I choose uncomfortable examples of what had happened but everyone can imagine that even worse things were happening. I was also thinking about what the audience can tolerate. The plan is to help people to heal and not create more traumas. 

Iida became withdrawn. The experiences she went through affected her relationships, life, and the choices she made. Can you talk about the psychological side of what happened to her?

She started to distance herself early on. I have witnessed that when one goes through difficult and harsh circumstances and aren’t able to share them with their community, people will shut down.

There is a saying that it helps when you talk things through. But not everybody has that kind of chance. Our community was separated and shattered to different places. We were forced to leave our neighborhoods and move to new places. Families and relatives have been separated. There wasn’t a support system. So many people decided to close their minds, keep the painful past inside them. There are still people who don’t want to talk about their experiences. They want to forget and just continue living their lives as Finns. They haven’t even told their own children that they are Sámi people. I know a person who got to know they are Skolt Sámi when their dad was dying.

Throughout the movie Iida goes through an internal transformation and remembers Je’vida again. How was her healing process? 

I’m not a psychologist so I leave that to professionals. But what I can do with my film is to screen it in Lapland for our community. We can watch it together and have a safe place to share our thoughts and speak freely about those experiences that have happened to our people. I think that art is one way to bring people together. It also brings some understanding to our history and what has happened to us. It’s still not easy to be Sámi in Finland. It’s easy to be a Finn in Finland, then we have all the same rights as all Finns.