“It’s About Time”: An Interview with Sámi Singer and Activist Sofia Jannok

This article is available in the December issue of Cinema Scandinavia. In this magazine, we focus on contemporary concepts of ‘identity’ in film, television, and documentary.

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Sámi singer and activist Sofia Jannok portrays Noaidi, the sacred person of the Sámi community in the French–Swedish crime show Midnight Sun. The series, being another example of transnational projects, set in the northern part of Sweden, which is also the home of the Sámi people, the only indigenous group within the European Union. Cinema Scandinavia sat down with Sofia, who has just received a 10-year-long scholarship from the Swedish Arts Grants Committee for her work and contribution to the field of music. We asked her about her involvement in Midnight Sun, and through her eyes, we could also gain knowledge of the Sámi culture and the everyday life of the Sámi people living in Sápmi.

How did you get involved in the project?

– One day the casting director got in touch with me and told me about the character of Noaidi (Nåjd) they wanted to try me for. I had never done acting before Midnight Sun; acting for me was out of space and I would never go to an audition. I have a great deal of respect for the craft of acting, but I’ve always figured that it is something I couldn’t do. But they probably wanted me, because the show is so much about the Sámi culture, and I’m a known Sámi person from the area. So I was invited to an audition in Filmhuset (The Film House) in Stockholm, and the casting director wanted me to do a scene from the script that she had sent to me via e-mail, which I somehow missed. I thought that was it, but she printed the script and gave me a few minutes to prepare. Fortunately enough, it went well, and they got back to me on the same afternoon to tell me that they wanted me to come back.

What did you think about the script or the idea of the series?

– That time I hadn’t seen the entire script. The Noaidi was a very respective person in the Sámi culture since she or he was the one who guided people through this and the other world. But because of the colonisation of the indigenous people in Sweden and in many countries, they burnt these persons, or chased them down and took them to court and jailed them for believing in other gods. So it’s a dark part of history in the Nordic countries, and therefore I thought it was interesting to bring this person up with a modern touch. She is a young woman in everyday clothing, and she lives in 2016.

Did you enjoy filming the series?

– I enjoyed it very much. Since I had no previous experience in acting, I had no prestige. I had no goals with it, so I could just go with the flow. I relied very much on the directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, who were good at giving directions, and the other actors. I had most of my scenes with Gustaf Hammarsten, who plays Anders Harnesk in the series, and he is such a talented actor and humble person. I think that was a big reason why I enjoyed it so much.

You mentioned in a Swedish interview that you had made some corrections in the script. Please briefly elaborate on those.

– It is not without complication when non-Sámi or non-indigenous people write stories about indigenous cultures. We’ve seen that a lot. In fact, this is how the stories about us as indigenous people have been told globally. Of course, there had been quite a few misunderstandings. So the day before shooting I had a meeting with a costume department and I realised that the outfit they prepared for me was an elderly man’s outfit and was also fake. I told them “I cannot be wearing that, I can’t put on that for the sake of my people, and for who I am”. Therefore, the costume team and I scouted out for real Sámi clothing. Luckily, we were in the Sámi area, so we found better things. As I said before, the Noaidi is a sacred person, and there are things you just don’t do, even if it is fictional. I also suggested other things we could do that weren’t controversial, or that would be better for the show to be more genuine and trustworthy towards the Sámi. I also changed the wording a bit in the script. As I’m bilingual, I could also say that this would be better in either Swedish or Sámi depending on the context. And the directors were really listening and taking in the suggestions.

Photo by Chloe Lodge

How much research do you think the film-makers did before writing the script?

– I believe they did quite some actually. They contacted me about a year before the shooting to meet up, but it never happened. Later I figured these were the guys who got in touch with me, and I also got to know that Måns got the whole idea of the show when he was listening to one of my concerts. I was like wow!

Why do you think he has found your music so inspirational?

– I think because in my music I bring up truth-telling as we say. I’m not afraid of speaking out against how the government is treating us, and the exploitation that is still going on and threatening our people to extinction. So it’s quite a clear message, but I don’t know which part he got inspired by exactly.

How did the Sámi people respond to the TV series?

– There were two sides, and I knew that would happen. When I read the whole manuscript days before the shooting started, I realised it was controversial. This would bring up people to debate, especially the non-Sámi population living the Sámi area because there is where the conflict is. These are the conflicts that actually deal with the hatred against Sámi people, and the exploitation of the mining industry. These are real problems, and these are brought up in a TV series in Sweden for the first time. So a debate was kind of inevitable. Other issues concerning the series originate in the fact that it is a story with a lot of Sámi themes written by non-Sámi people. It could never be completely politically correct because you could only get the true picture if it is told by Sámi people. Since I do political music sometimes and take part in this kind of debates, I’m not unfamiliar with them. But I do think that it’s good that people start talking about things that have been suppressed and hidden for a long time. Besides that I was also criticized because of my role, but what can I say? People have different points of view.

It seems indigenous people and their issues, life, and culture, etc. are getting more and more media coverage. I’d also say it’s great that TV shows, films and such bring up issues like this since those have the capacity to reach a wider audience and might initiate change in society.

– It’s great that indigenous people are getting more media coverage. It’s about time! In Sweden, for instance, they are talking about a Sámi boom right now, but we have been here for thousands of years. So the boom is a very long one… It’s really not about us speaking up, but due to popular culture, people are actually looking at us, seeing us and opening up their eyes a bit. On the other hand, it’s also sad that TV series and other popular culture products are the ones that bring up these questions to surface and it has to go all the way through them to get a change.

In a democracy, in a country such as Sweden known for solidarity, human rights, you would believe at least that the human rights of indigenous people are recognised. But this is not the case, and we have seen no change. Still, even if that was not a Sámi production, I think it is a progress. Step by step, we get more and more consciousness of the majority of the dominant culture, so this time it might not have been a Sámi production, but maybe in a decade or so a full Sámi series can get the same coverage. We are not there yet, but we get there.

You were talking about the hatred against Sámi people, which is actually reflected on in Midnight Sun, so I’m wondering how the situation has changed through time.

– I was born in the 80s, right after the intense period of Sámi activism when there was the Sámi wave of pride and the feeling of it’s enough. The big Alta demonstrations in Northern Norway in the late 1970s, which got both national and international media coverage, resulted in a change in Norway. They set up a Sámi parliament there in 1989, and they signed the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention also known as ILO 169 in 1990. Sweden was one of the countries that made the convention happen, but still have not signed it yet – neither has Finland or Russia, but at least Finland and Sweden also have a Sámi parliament. So my parents have never doubted to bring the Sámi identity to my brother and me. I don’t really know what it was like before, but, of course, I know that my family was forced to migrate and both of my parents went to boarding school, away from their families. So it is better now when it comes to assimilation politics.

I’d also say that we are more proud now, but are we more proud than 200 years ago? Not for sure, because 200 hundred years ago when we were almost alone up here, we had no reason not to be proud. So in that way it is better than 60 years ago, but we live on the small remaining of land and water belonging to our ancestors for thousands of years. They have not stopped the colonisation, so we are being pushed away even more from ancestral land and we try to do the things we have always done. So the land-grabbing part is worse.

I’m curious what happens when you go abroad and talk to people who know you live in Sweden, the country that is one of the biggest fighters for human rights. What do they say?

– People in Sweden don’t know about this! Even when I tour nationally and talk to the audience afterwards, I realise many didn’t know about this, and they go crazy and start reading more about it. So you don’t have to go abroad for realising that people are not aware of these issues. It’s a kind of censorship what is happening in the democratic Nordic countries. That is, for sure, because politicians know about these, and they don’t even deny it. But now we have a good minister, though non-Sámi, who deals with the Sámi issues, and she actually talks about human rights. We are closer to a change than ever before. The latest decade we’ve started to win court cases when suing the state for taking away our rights.

We can also see the international success of Amanda Kernell’s film Sámi Blood. Have you seen it?

– Oh, of course, I have! I know all the people in it. You can’t even compare Midnight Sun to Sámi Blood. They are in different leagues as the latter is a full Sámi production, while the former is not.

Sámi Blood has been travelling around the world and screened at many film festivals. It has also won several awards. Do you think it also helps the Sámi people get more and more attention both inside and outside the Nordic countries?

– The film brings up quite a common politics in the native areas all over the world. Indigenous people are oppressed everywhere, and the same methods like race biology, assimilation politics, boarding schools, all these things happened everywhere. This is why it’s so great that it is shown internationally. I’m so glad, because it’s about time, and the spotlight is finally on us.

This year’s edition of the Göteborg Film Festival, the focus was on Sámi films. Is there an interest in the Sámi community to make films?

– Yes, and it is growing. In the 80s, Nils Gaup directed the Norwegian film Pathfinder (Ofelas in Sámi). It is also a full Sámi production and was even nominated for the best foreign film at the Oscars. Now we have Sámi Blood. One of its producers, Oskar Östergren, whom I also produce videos with, works for a Sámi film company, and he is also a board member at the Sámi Film Association. They are working with ethics of filming indigenous cultures internationally. This is an important issue because we see all those Western films that are depicting the natives in a lousy way. I’m glad that people are finally starting to take ethical issues regarding the representation of indigenous cultures more seriously. The Native Americans I met are really happy with the film The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film-makers took advisors from the indigenous culture, and they were really asking questions: What it is like for us [indigenous people]? How did the language sound?

You also appeared in a documentary series on SVT, the Swedish national TV. Please talk briefly about your experience regarding that.

– A team was following me for a year. This was actually the first time I let someone into my inner circle, my family, and the reindeer areas. The experience was both revealing and a bit scary. But I figured that they would go further than the usual stereotypes as they were with me for such a long time.

Did they show you the edited version before broadcasting it?

– Yes, they sent it to me for approval, because it was also a non-indigenous production. Even though you have the best heart, the best intentions, it’s always hard to compete with someone who grew up in the culture.

Are you planning to take more roles in TV shows or films and be in the spotlight as an actor yourself?

– I don’t know, it is really not my field. I guess if someone ever needs a Noaidi again, I’d probably say yes since I know how to play her. It could be interesting, for sure. It’s like throwing yourself out there and leaving your comfort zone to face a challenge you need to overcome.

What are you doing now?

– The scholarship came in with really good timing because October was my first month in two years when I was not travelling that much. I’m working on new music; we have a new theme for an album, but it might be something else. I started to really enjoy producing music videos due to the combination of music and images. These two combined comprise such a powerful element. For the last album, I made three music videos with no budget, so I was filming myself. In 2016 one of them [We Are Still Here] won the award for the best music video at imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival taking place in Canada, which is the biggest indigenous film festival in the world. Later it was shown in Berlin and London among other places. We will definitely work more on video productions, and I also have a China tour in November and one in the USA in March.

Featured photo: Sotarn Otf

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.