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GÖTEBORG 2017: Sami Film Past & Present with Nils Gaup

You attended the Göteborg Film Festival as part of the special Sámi section with two of your films, Pathfinder and The Kautokeino Rebellion screening. What is it like to return to show your films well after they’ve been released?

It feels very retro; it’s a weird feeling because these are very old movies. Pathfinder, for example, had its thirty-year anniversary at the Tromsø International Film Festival back in January. It’s hard coming back and talking about them because part of me feels like they belong to another life. At the same time, I’m happy that these movies are still there, and people care about them. That’s something that’s very important to me.

You saw Sámi Blood at the festival, which won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film. How does it compare to when Pathfinder was released?

It’s completely different because when Pathfinder came out, no one knew about the Sámi people. The film ran in Sweden for one year and no one knew it was a Sámi film. They just assumed it came from somewhere outside in the far north. Pathfinder came from nothing, there was no expectations from the audience and we didn’t include any talk of politics. Today it’s different because people are aware of the Sámi and there’s a strong focus on indigenous culture. The climate is different, and that’s very good.

Sámi Blood is a fantastic movie; it’s honest, sincere and told in a very true way. There’s also only women in the movie, and the main character is a strong girl. This film has everything it needs to get attention.

Pathfinder is based on Sámi folklore. What was it about these folk stories that made you want to turn them into a film?

I was working in the theatre at the time and found it boring, so I decided that I’d make movies. I didn’t realise I was an indigenous person at the time, that’s something new, but I wanted to tell stories from my own culture, my own language and from stories that I grew up hearing. I was born into a tradition of people telling oral stories to each other, and that was before television. However, once television came people stopped telling each other these stories. In a way, I wanted to get revenge on television by putting these stories on the screen. These were the stories I grew up with, and I wanted to tell it as big as I could.

Pathfinder was also the first Sámi-language feature film. Was it a challenge convincing the Norwegian film industry that this film had to be in the Sámi language?

It was very difficult because no one understands Sámi language. I wanted to make a big, expensive movie, and the idea of having it in that language where maybe only 10,000 people would see it at the cinemas was, of course, a scary thought. They wanted it to be shot in the south of Norway, with well-known Norwegian actors, Norwegian music, and in the Norwegian language. But I just couldn’t do that. It was a battle I had to fight. I had to convince a lot of people that we had to use unknown Sámi actors, have the Sámi music yoik as a basis for the film score, and I had to tell them we needed to shoot in the far-north of Norway in winter, where it’s very cold. It was a tough battle to fight.

The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Did it open up for more Sámi films to be made?

I was so sure that once Pathfinder had become a success in the Nordic countries, England and the Oscar nomination that there’d be heaps of Sámi movies so I could just relax and let other people make them. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

You returned to Sámi film with The Kautokeino Rebellion, this time with a political tone. Did you find it easier to return to Sámi film after the success of Pathfinder?

I spent 10-12 years financing the movie and convincing people. That was a very, very long time. I was so sure that after Pathfinder I’d be able to make a Sámi movie again, but it wasn’t that easy. It was much harder in a way. Also, the movie didn’t have the conventional happy ending; this story is a tragedy. It’s an important story for the Sámi community, especially where I was born, Kautokeino. When you make stories based on folklore, you can almost do whatever you want with that story. When it’s a true story, you have to remain really close to the true events. It’s been a case where you can’t talk about it, and it was forbidden to discuss among people. But I always felt like it was bugging the community because they all knew it had happened but were prevented from talking about it. I felt I had to tell the story in a movie because that would be the best way to bring awareness to this tragedy.

Besides the political side to the film, financing was a challenge. The film is a period drama, which is very expensive to film, and having scenes with 1,000 reindeer can also be a challenge. It took us a long time to finance the film and everyone was sure it was going to fail, but it ended up being a huge success. That was a total surprise.

You have made two films based on Norwegian king Håkon Håkonsonn. Do you have a general interest in Norwegian folklore?

Absolutely, the Birkebeiner is a story that I heard when I was a school kid and still remember the story of when the guys go skiing with a baby. I know it’s not a true story, really. But it’s a very interesting story because there’s a nice mythic element to the story. Of course it’s I think it’s partly because there’s so much competition on the screen today. People don’t go to the typical dramas now, so making a drama now is almost impossible. The Last King is sword fights, horses, everything that you need to get attention and get some audience.

Would you make another Sámi film?

People come to me all the time and ask me to do another Pathfinder! But I tell them I would just not be able to do it; I can hardly remember the movie. But the industry has completely changed; after the screening of Sámi Blood I spoke with a lot of producers who were asking me about the next Sámi movie that will be released. Things are being turned upside down in a really good way.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.