The Movie Waffler Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - JE’VIDA | The Movie Waffler

Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - JE’VIDA

Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Review - JE’VIDA
A Sámi woman reckons with the culture she left behind.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Katja Gauriloff

Starring: Agafia Niemenmaa, Heidi Juliana Gauriloff, Sanna-Kaisa Palo, Seidi Haarla, Erkki Gauriloff, Matleena Fofonoff

There's a scene early on in director Katja Gauriloff's Je'vida in which an elderly man is fishing on a lake with his young granddaughter. When asked why he only takes a certain amount of fish from the lake on each trip, the man tells the child of the importance of ensuring the body of water remains stocked with a population of fish. He's talking about fish in the literal sense, but his sentiment forms the basis of the central theme of Je'vida, that of a disappearing people, the Skolt Sámi of Lapland.

Je'vida is the first feature film to fully employ the Skolt Sámi dialect, whose native speakers have now dwindled to less than 300. Through the film's narrative we see how this came to be, as the Skolt Sámi are subjected to what amounts to a form of cultural genocide enacted by Finnish authorities eager to homogenise their country.

Je'vida review

The film opens with two women travelling to Lapland following the death of a woman who has left her childhood home to both of them. Sanna (Seidi Haarla) is the late woman's daughter and has just met her aunt Lida (Sanna-Kaisa Palo) for the first time. Raised by her mother in Stockholm, Sanna had no idea of her family's Sámi roots, and was completely unaware of the existence of her aunt, who is none too pleased to meet her niece. Arriving at the family home, on the shores of a scenic lake, Sanna immediately feels as though she's arrived at a home she never knew she longed for. Lida, on the other hand, is keen to get the place cleared out and move on. As Lida hurls the contents of the home onto a bonfire, Sanna tries to get her to open up as to why the place causes her aunt such pain.

This initiates a flashback narrative that introduces us to Lida as a young girl, then known by the name Je'vida and played by a revelatory first-timer in Agafia Niemenmaa. The young Je'vida clearly loves her life, and particularly likes to spend time with her aforementioned grandfather (Erkki Gauriloff). Her mother however wants Je'vida to integrate into Finnish culture, leading to Je'vida and her older sister being sent to a boarding school where she's taunted by classmates and bullied by teachers and staff determined to beat her culture out of her, renaming her Lida in the process. This harrowing segment plays in similar fashion to the recent Belgian drama Playground, with Je'vida becoming a bully herself in an attempt to survive the experience.

Je'vida review

We later see Je'vida, now Lida, as a hardened young woman who seduces a visiting engineer from the South as a means of leaving the frozen North. When her grandmother arrives for a visit, clad in the distinctive Sámi garb, Lida hides her away in her apartment, terrified of her roots being exposed. It's heartbreaking.

Gauriloff opts to tell her story through black and white imagery, both the present day timeline and the flashbacks. This creates the sense that the two are very much connected and that the elderly Lida can't escape her past. As she recalls a time when she was content to live for herself and her family rather than for a judgemental and bigoted society, she comes to realise she never should have fled her roots. In Sanna, a younger generation is represented, one that views with horror the prejudices that fuelled previous generations.

Je'vida review

While highlighting a very specific milieu, Gauriloff draws on recognisable imagery from a wider cinematic heritage to tell her story. Lawrence of Arabia's famous "match cut" is replicated, but rather than cutting from a striking match to the baking desert sun, Gauriloff cuts to an image of the cool Northern lights. When an interloper sets up a gramophone at a Midsummer celebration, the Sámi people gather round this curious device like the early humans of 2001: A Space Odyssey gathering around the monolith: nothing will ever be the same.

Given the limited talent pool Gauriloff had to cast her film from, Je'vida is a remarkably well acted film, testament no doubt to her capabilities as a director of people who were likely eager to have their stories told as a vital means of preserving their dwindling society. Hopefully Je'vida will shine a light on a threatened culture and keep that lake stocked for future generations.

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