A slew of Sámi TV and film projects are in the works or due for release in 2023. At the North Pitch session at the Tromsø International Film Festival in northern Norway, the variety and quantity of projects in the pipeline was impressive. From the musical “Árru” to the love story “My Reindeerherder;” from documentaries to “Sámi Wedding – A Countdown to Disaster,” a four-part TV comedy, Sámi culture is attracting investment and distribution. Global players like Netflix are already on board with a feature “Stolen,” directed by Elle Márjá Eira due to start filming in the Spring. 

This moment hasn’t come out of nowhere, Anna Lajla Utsi, the managing director of the Sámi Film Institute maintains: “It’s a result of many, many years of hard work from both us at the Film Institute, trying to raise the funding, and also creating partnerships with Norwegian broadcaster NRK Drama, Netflix, Telefilm Canada, Canada Media Fund, Sundance, the European Film Academy and the Tromsø Film Festival.”

The Sámi, an Indigenous people of the Arctic Circle, stretch across four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They have their own language and culture which in the past have been actively suppressed. But now, with a resurgent activism and support of bodies like the Film Institute, this is changing. Utsi – who headed the Sámi consultancy for Disney’s “Frozen 2” – believes there is a resurgence in Sámi identity: “For such a long time, so many people have lost the connection to culture, language and identity. So now, after many, many years, there are many people coming back.” 

One of those people is Ole Giæver, the director of the opening film at Tromsø Festival this year, “Let the River Flow,” which also screens at the Göteborg Film Festival. Hailing from north Norway, Giæver believed himself to be solely Norwegian, but, as a result of his research into the film and his own background, discovered that his own family has Sámi roots and so he now officially identifies as Sámi: “It wasn’t supposed to be a personal project in that way, but it became the most personal ever.” The film tells the story of the fight against the Alta dam project in the late ‘70s through the eyes of Ester, a young teacher who has hidden her own Sámi identity in order to better integrate with Norwegian society. For singer, artist and activist Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, her debut role as Ester was challenging as it involved subsuming her own pride in her identity. She tells Variety: “Ester is born in the 1950s, so she is obviously more affected by the oppression of the Sámi people than I have been. I was born in ‘98. I’m very actively proud of who I am and of our background, to try to fight off that shame that has been forced upon our people.”

Liisa Holmberg and Anne Lajla Utsi Credit: Knut Aaserud

Part of that change has been due to the power of cinema. Utsi recalls seeing Nils Gaup’s “Pathfinder” in 1987: “I was 14, and I was sitting with my cousin. That was the first time we saw ourselves in a film. And they were talking our language and they’re handsome. It was a life-changing moment for us. After that, I said to my father: I want to make films.” 

The International Sámi Film Institute was established in 2009 with funding from the Norwegian Ministry for Culture. It initially sought to educate and train actors, writers, directors and technicians, before moving into the production of shorts with “7 Sámi Stories” (2015) and feature films like “Sámi Blood” (2014). As a transnational people, the Institute has sought a border-less approach, with close ties to other Indigenous film movements, forging links with the Indigenous Program in Sundance, and the NATIVe section of the Berlin Film Festival as well as Indigenous film movement in Canada. 

In 2018, to foster this cooperation, the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund was set up. Its head Liisa Holmberg explains: “We work to commission Indigenous filmmakers in the Arctic, and create a collaboration so that there are co-productions between Greenland and Canada, Norway and Sweden, and so on.” It is hoped this form of collaboration will open up more sources for funding projects. 

A long term goal of the commission and the Institute is to create what Utsi describes as “narrative autonomy,” with freedom from Norwegian or other government bodies to greenlight their own projects: “Why shouldn’t we be able to decide what stories to tell ourselves?” To sustain international support, it will be necessary to talk less exclusively to Norwegian audiences. Isaksen says: “In my music, and the book I’ve written, sometimes I get so dedicated to talking to the Norwegian majority that you can forget your own people.” When catering to a global audience via streaming platforms like Netflix or international co-productions, it will be vital not to lose sight of the original Sámi audience.  

Tromsø International Film Festival Credit: Knut Aaserud