We Have a Movie Theatre Made of Snow! An Interview with Sunna Nousuniemi & Aleksi Ahlakorpi, Skábmagovat Indigenous Peoples’ Film Festival

Everybody is talking about a Sámi boom now, at least in the Nordic region. However, the Skábmagovat Indigenous Peoples’ Film Festival has been promoting and spreading knowledge of Sámi film for 20 years now. This might not come as a real surprise considering the fact that Skábmagovat is the oldest existing Sámi indigenous film festival, which takes place in Inari, the very north of Sápmi (the northern part of Finland). Cinema Scandinavia sat down with executive director Sunna Nousuniemi and producer Aleksi Ahlakorpi to talk about their festival, the challenges they face and that fantastic movie theatre made of snow.

The festival has a relatively long history. Please briefly talk about the beginnings and how it has been developed during the years.

Aleksi: A group of people met here in Inari about 20 years ago and they started thinking about organising some kind of event. Their initial thought was to organise a theatre festival, however, soon they opted for a film festival because they taught it would be easier to get more films related to indigenous people than theatre plays. After pondering on the idea of opening a kind of drive-in cinema for viewers arriving by snowmobile, they ended up building a screen and movie theatre of snow. They chose January as the month for organising the event, because back then no tourists visited Inari at the beginning of the year. They knew the hotels would be empty so they could easily find accommodation for the festival guests coming from other places. Of course, many things have changed during these 20 years, and today January and February are the busiest months; most of the tourists arrive in these months to see the Northern Lights, for example.

Sunna: When the festival began, there was only one venue available, which was the Sámi Museum Siida. They have an auditorium, but there was a need for another place to show films. Therefore, it made sense to build a cinema of snow during winter. This has become Skábmagovat’s trademark and brings a lot of people here. Nowadays we have three venues, and we always start our festival with a day dedicated to youngsters and children. The people organising a film festival also wanted to give a platform for screening the student films made as part of the media programme at the Sámi Education Institute based in Inari. Those films could not have been seen anywhere else as well as Sámi kids didn’t have any platform in the Finnish television. So it was important for them to show those films in Sámi language to children and youngsters living here in the area.

How did you two get involved in the festival?

Sunna: I’m originally from Inari, so I’ve been affected by Skábmagovat since my childhood, but I joined the team with a bit of detour. After I had gone to the festival in 2013 and saw films from New Zealand, I got inspired and decided to spend a year in New Zealand to learn about the culture there. When I came back and was looking for a job, and when I saw the festival was hiring a producer, I applied and got the job. I didn’t have any experience in event management, but I knew how much value the festival had given to me and wanted to give the same feeling to others. I started as a producer, and I’ve been promoted to become the executive director recently. I’ve been working at the festival for four years now and I still have plans with it. For instance, presenting Sámi films is also part of my work as Skábmagovat provides other film festivals in Finland and overseas with a programme; for instance in Helsinki, we have a Mini-Skábmagovat Festival.

Aleksi: I only joined the organising team in August last year when Sunna asked me if I wanted to work as a producer at Skábmagovat. I had no previous experience in film festival management but had some sort of knowledge of how to organise a festival. I’ve been working as an associative producer at a local Sámi music festival called Ijahis idja. Besides that, I took media studies in Inari and directed a documentary and some short films.

Sunna: I asked Aleksi to work with us because of his experience with the music festival and films. We don’t mind if people joining us don’t have so much experience, for us the mindset and the understanding of the importance of indigenous cultures and languages are more essential. For me working with the festival is not just about the festival itself as a platform for film screenings. I think film is one of the most powerful tools for us, Sámi people and other indigenous peoples, to share our stories and educate – not only non-indigenous people but also ourselves – and to revive indigenous cultures and language. I want people to be inspired, and I want them to learn more about indigenous cultures as well as the Sámi culture.

So one can say that Skábmagovat is an activist film festival that wants to share and spread knowledge of indigenous people.

Aleksi: Exactly! There are a lot of film festivals in Northern Europe, but those don’t focus on indigenous films, so we want to give a platform for indigenous people – local ones and other indigenous people from other parts of the world – to share stories from their perspective. There are many similarities between Sámi and other indigenous people. When one sees a film, for example from Canada, they realise this is the subject they’ve been struggling with or that seems really familiar here in Inari as well. It is empowering to see stories from all around the world, indeed. This all influences the way in which we program the festival and organise our side events. Our artistic director, Jorma Lehtola, selects the films based on certain criteria: all films have to be made by indigenous people. He has been working with the festival since day one and a real genius when it comes to indigenous cinema.

Who is your main audience?

Aleksi: The festival is open to everyone. However, we really want local people to come and visit our festival, and it doesn’t matter whether they are Sámi or Finnish. Of course, it is important for us that everything is in at least one of the Sámi languages; every time we send out information about our festival, it is in English, Finnish and in one Sámi language.

There is a real diversity of languages. So I’m interested in some practicalities. What kind of subtitles do you have when screening films?

Aleksi: When it comes to Sámi films, we have English or Finnish subtitles, and a few times we also had Sámi subtitles for some short films. Of course, if the directors make the subtitles in one of the Sámi languages, we’ll screen them like that. For instance, last year my documentary about a young Skolt Sámi woman was screened at the festival. Finnish and Skolt Sámi are spoken in the film, so when she spoke Finnish we had English and Skolt Sámi subtitles, when she spoke Skolt Sámi, the subtitles were in English and Finnish.

This is really the matter of resources. Unfortunately, we can’t translate everything, so we have to go with English. We do hope that someday we can provide Sámi and Finnish subtitles when films in English are screened. It is important because of the local people. My generation is used to watching films in English without subtitles, but I know that my parents’ generation needs Finnish or Sámi subtitles to be able to really follow the films.

ⓒ Tapio Seppälä

It seems like a great challenge to cope with. What are some other challenges you encounter when organising the festival?

Sunna: As Aleksi said earlier, now January is the peak season of tourism and we have problems when it comes to providing accommodation options to our festival audience. The festival has grown very big, and there are a lot of people interested in coming here from the South of Finland and also from other countries, but we can’t take more people at the moment. There is just not enough accommodation. So that is something we have to work with; we should start promoting the festival earlier. Besides that, the festival is run by a non-profit organisation, so most of our work is, in fact, voluntary work. That is not really a negative side to it, but in order to grow big, we also have to renew the original organisation that has been organising the festival.

Aleksi: I can only think of the lack of accommodation now. The area is packed with tourists in January but they are not here because of the festival. Of course, the larger number of tourists is good for the area. We should maybe work on reaching out to those tourists, or, as Sunna said, promote the festival earlier, so people interested in our festival could book their room in advance.

It is interesting because there are some studies on film festivals and tourism, namely how cities can benefit from a film festival organised there. In your case, it’s rather different, of course, the geographical location of Inari might be an answer for that. As Aleksi said earlier, people are coming to see the Northern lights. But do you co-operate with the tourism sector or the city?

Sunna: We have many local partners and financiers, and they really help us to get more audience. I think the main problem is that we are a small organisation so we don’t have enough human resources and funding. We’ve had great collaborations during the past years, but working for Sámi arts requires more funding. The government usually cuts the money going to the culture first, so we really need to find other ways of funding our festival.

Now Sámi film is really booming; Sámi Blood by Amanda Kernell has gained quite a success all over the world, and Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest by Katja Gauriloff from the Finnish part of Sápmi has gained national and international recognition. More and more people are interested in Sámi film, that’s why we need money to support Sámi film-makers. So I do hope we can raise more money in the future.

Why do you think Sámi film is booming now and not earlier or later?

Sunna: The International Sámi Film Institute, which is our collaborative partner, definitely plays a key role in the development of Sámi film and story-telling. Thanks to their work, Sámi film has developed and gained more attention and success. The next thing now is to get more funding for us so we can also support the film-makers.

Aleksi: I think one of the reasons for the boom is that the film-makers are members of the younger generation and they have more distance from those events/subjects they talk about in their films. In addition to that, they grew up in a different culture and movies were a natural part of that culture. Thanks to today’s technology, everyone can make a film now. With the help of social media, it is easier to get people involved in different projects, too. Here in Inari, the Sámi Education Centre also has a key role. The short films we are getting from them are really of high quality. We’d like to be a meeting point for film-makers.

The 20th edition of the festival ended only a week ago. You focused on North America. How do you usually come up with the main focus of the festival?

Aleksi: It is our artistic director who decides on that. This year was the 20th anniversary of the release of the film Smoke Signal by Chris Eyre, which is an important indigenous film in North America. Additionally, Standing Rock had been in the news a lot. Also, in mainstream media.

What were some of the highlights of the festival this year?

Sunna: One of the highlights was our film competition. For the first time, we had two film awards of 5,000 Euro each granted by the International Sámi Film Institute. One of them went to the Best Global Indigenous Short Film and the other to the Best Sámi Short Film. The awards are important because this way we can also support the film-makers and encourage them to keep telling stories from an indigenous perspective. It is really a great feeling to give something to the film-makers. The awards also raise the value of our festival, and we do hope that more and more people will submit their film.

Aleksi: I hope the awards will encourage short film-makers to participate in our film festival. For me, the highlight was Sápmi 3, a selection of Sámi short films. It was sold out, which means we had around 250 people to come. Less than 600 people live in the village, of course, there were probably viewers from other places, but it is still a large number.

What kind of films do you usually screen?

Aleksi: We have everything: from Sámi and other indigenous short films to feature-length films as well as both fiction and documentary films. We always try to schedule the films thematically or genre-wise. Of course, we don’t get new feature-length fiction and documentaries every year; the past few years have been really great for us in that sense. This year we got a film about the Moomins (Moomins and the Winterland) for the kids translated in Northern Sámi language. We also had Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton from Australia, Angry Inuk by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Waru directed by Briar Grace-Smith, Ainsley Gardiner, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa, Awanui Simich-Pene, Chelsea Cohen, Katie Wolfe, and Paula Jones. We also screened Rise 1: Sacred Water and Rise 2: Red Power by Michelle Latimer, who reported from Standing Rock. She was also our guest.

I know how much energy it takes to organise a film festival; you must be quite tired. Are you on a break now or have you already started planning the next edition?

Aleksi: Both of us have been working on this project for six months now. Working for a festival means unbalanced work since during the event you might work long hours, while before the festival it is quieter. When we are not organising the festival we try to remind people that the festival exists. After the festival, you need to have enough rest, but when you know what you are doing it is so much easier to plan. Even though the festival has just ended, we have started planning the next edition. We are working on fundraising and planning smaller events like Skábmagovat presents or organise smaller events in the area.

And as the last question: How did you convince or encourage someone to visit your festival?

Aleksi: We have a movie theatre made of snow!

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.