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Suvi West • Director of Eatnameamet - Our Silent Struggle

“Every Sámi generation had people who fought”


- We chatted to the director of the DocPoint title about what many would rather not talk about

Suvi West • Director of Eatnameamet - Our Silent Struggle
(© Katriina Haikala)

From marches in the streets to ordinary meetings in city halls, in her documentary Eatnameamet - Our Silent Struggle [+see also:
interview: Suvi West
film profile
(produced by Janne Niskala, of Vaski Filmi), Suvi West follows Sámi people's fight for their culture and land. It’s a struggle that, also in Finland, has been going on for years. The movie is being shown at the 2021 DocPoint festival.

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Cineuropa: Even though you refer to the “silent struggle” here, it's really not that silent any more. Did you notice this change in people?
Suvi West: I started the process five years ago, and that's when the situation became unbearable. People had to become like activists if they wanted their culture to be maintained. I was supposed to be working on another film, but I needed to focus on this instead. I had to join the battle, in a way. Every Sámi generation has been in that situation, and every generation had people who fought, even though there was this shame associated with being Sámi. This “silent struggle” has been going on for a few hundred years now, and after us, there will be others who will fight. When you are young, I guess it's easier to generate attention or access useful tools. But there have always been these people, and I don't think that the young generation can claim all the credit. When I went through the archives, I got to see them talk. It's because of them that we still exist.

When we talk about fighting for your rights or identity, violent protests immediately come to mind. But you show how important boring meetings in city halls can be as well!
The Sámi institutes and politicians allowed us to join, but it was harder when it came to the Finnish state meetings. Many times, we were able to film just the first 20 minutes, and when the real conversation began, we would be kicked out. I think it's important to show that everything matters. Those people, sitting there and trying to negotiate with the ones in power – that's really crucial. We need everything we can get: we need activism, politics and pedagogy, with kindergarten teachers also trying their best to preserve the language. It would be fake to just show some demonstrations – it wasn't an option.

One notices that when it comes to traditional costumes, people tend to reserve them for special occasions. Seeing them dressed like that while discussing, say, a PowerPoint presentation, is it an important step?
I think it's just natural. I didn't want to exoticise anybody, as that's how we used to be portrayed in films, for example. Personally, I don't wear my dress outside of the Sámi area. I live in Helsinki, and then I would become a tourist attraction. I don't want to be objectified; I have been objectified my whole life.

The examples of cultural appropriation that you present in the film are interesting because those who are accused of it don't see it as a problem. Instead, they encourage people, like one woman on TV, to “pimp their Sámi costume”.
It's really strange, and the change is slow. The conversation is more about somebody using a fake dress, and then they ask Sámi people about it – it's all very shallow. Once you say it's problematic, the hatred pours out. Instead of focusing on that, I wanted to go where it's really leading: it's leading to hate speech.

They clearly see it as a part of general Finnish heritage. Is it that hard for people to notice the difference?
Sámi culture and Lapland play a big role in how Finland is marketed. They are seen as Finnish property. I know that these issues were very similar in the 1960s and 1970s, so I don't really know why I made this film now. I am an emotional person, so I guess I started to feel this sorrow and the desperation of my people. I couldn't bear it any more – I had to do something. It's always the same struggle; it just has different names.

From some perspectives, the Nordic countries are viewed as some kind of modern paradise. I guess these conversations are so hard because nobody wants this image to change?
Finns don't learn about us in school – they know more about the indigenous people of the United States. They have been told, repeatedly, that Finland hasn't done anything wrong, that they are the ones who have always been oppressed. When I started to talk about it with some of my colleagues, they got angry: “What does colonisation have to do with Finland?!” Even when I was interviewing possible editors for the film, I got the impression they didn't believe me.

I received a Sámi-language education, but my parents' generation had to fight for it; they were taken to boarding schools and shamed. But some still preserved their self-esteem. This boarding-school system destroyed so much. I can see and feel this trauma, even in my own body. I ended up in a local bar once, having my morning coffee, and some older people started to talk about it. They were getting so emotional – I have never seen them like that. It's such a difficult subject, in so many ways.

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