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Norway / Finland

Ole Giæver • Director of Let the River Flow

“I’ve also had my Sámi awakening”


- The Norwegian director opens up about the fight surrounding the construction of the Alta Dam, and telling stories from a Sámi perspective

Ole Giæver • Director of Let the River Flow
(© Ingun Alette Mæhlum)

After screenings at Tromsø and Göteborg, Let the River Flow [+see also:
interview: Ole Giæver
film profile
continues to rack up admissions in its native Norway, thanks to distributor Mer Filmdistribusjon. But although it talks about the fight surrounding the construction of the Alta Dam in the late 1970s, the discussion is clearly ongoing, with the film’s star, Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, recently protesting alongside Greta Thunberg against wind turbines built on reindeer pastures used by Sámi herders. Director Ole Giæver breaks down his movie for us.

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Cineuropa: Thinking about recent protests, it would be impossible not to notice how something that was once viewed as a “folly” is now perfectly understandable. Is that why you wanted to make this film?
Ole Giæver:
I was more political when I was younger, but I wanted to talk about our society. It’s a very individualistic time: people are politically engaged, but they don’t always do it together. There was something about the Alta case that I found inspiring: the solidarity of the people who were willing to sacrifice so much. I wanted to go back in time to show what we are lacking today. I was also really struck by the impact that this case had on Sámi rights. I knew that if I was going to tell this story, it had to be from the Sámi perspective.

My father was a part of that movement. He was also against building the dams. But he wasn’t focusing on the Sámis, because he didn’t know he had those roots himself, which is also why this film is the most personal I have ever made. I also had my Sámi awakening.

It’s about a fight, but your protagonist is scared all the time. She wants to disappear. It’s inspiring, seeing her getting stronger – if she can do it, anyone can.
She is not your usual leader, but she is based on so many people I have met. They also wanted to blend in. It’s because of society and the history of her family, where so many things were left unsaid. Ella, who plays her, is so different. The first time she read the script, she said: “I can’t identify with this person!” But I think we can sense her brave, beating heart – that’s where all that blushing comes from.

The protests drive the story, but you are also interested in what happens in people’s homes, showing different shades of shame.
In Norway, we know what happened and the consequences of these riots, but I wanted to come a bit closer. It was missing from all of the materials I read. What was it like to be a young Sámi back then, and what kind of struggles did they have to face? At home, at work? Now, we have a new generation of young and proud Sámis, but it’s also because of that case. I wanted to show someone who still had to go through this entire process. She has to learn how to be proud.

Many people call the Alta case a “turning point”. It really was – also because that shame was finally gone. People had a sense of achievement. It doesn’t mean the struggle is over; there are still many fights to be won. But this young generation certainly has more confidence, which you can also notice when they meet politicians.

You are subtle when it comes to showing traditions and customs. One can imagine that many filmmakers would just focus on that, but now, it feels more private, somehow.
I think it came from my ambition to tell an authentic, truthful story. To tell it from within. If I had been completely oblivious to Sámi culture, I would probably have gone crazy with that, with all those costumes and so on. But if you pay too much attention to that, you lose sight of the complexity of this conflict. You saw the film with English subtitles, with the Sámi language appearing in yellow. It was to emphasise the fact that these are two different cultures, but you can belong to both. That’s what’s interesting about the Sámi-Norwegian conflict: you are able to blend in.

Like her mother, brainwashed into hating herself. How do you move on from that?
These traumas have marked entire generations. During World War II, so many traces of Sámi culture were destroyed – suddenly, they could hide. Some of them did: they decided to become Norwegians. They didn’t want their children to suffer like they had done, but of course, it backfired. I could also see it when I was tracing my own family history. All of a sudden, they had Norwegian names. Still, I wanted people to understand what motivated that choice.

I think it’s really exciting what’s happening with Sámi stories right now. There are more films and more freedom to talk about what you want – you don’t feel like a spokesperson for the entire community. When the film premiered in Tromsø, it was so special, with people sharing their own family secrets. I hope it will contribute to this personal movement of figuring out who you are.

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