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TORONTO 2023 Discovery

Review: The Tundra Within Me


- In the debut feature by Norwegian director Sara Margrethe Oskal, you can never go home again

Review: The Tundra Within Me
Risten Anine Kvernmo Gaup in The Tundra Within Me

Returning from the big city to the small town or village where one was born is never an easy or smooth process for anyone, but nothing could have prepared Lena (Risten Anine Kvernmo Gaup), the protagonist from The Tundra Within Me [+see also:
film profile
, for just what this decision would entail. Playing in the Discovery section at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the debut feature from Norwegian director Sara Margrethe Oskal is a frank and honest confrontation with questions of heritage, authenticity, exploitation and identity. 

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The film begins with Lena and her young son temporarily moving back to her hometown in Sápmi, in northern Norway. They used to live in Oslo, and from the start, Lena’s mother is worried about her grandson’s knowledge of the Sámi language. This sets the tone for the suspicion with which Lena will be looked at by everyone in the town — everyone except Mahtte (Nils Ailu Kemi), a reindeer herder who quickly becomes more than a friend. 

But like everyone else in the town, Mahtte is confused by and wary of Lena’s art, often violent illustrations about the place of women in reindeer herding. To many, these confrontational drawings seem to criticise their traditions and livelihood, carried on from generation to generation; to Lena, this is a positive way to give women in that community a voice. It’s an interesting dilemma, but it is difficult not to be on the side of the hostile locals when Lena’s way of approaching this project is to ask women herders point blank “what is it like to be a herder as a woman?” — it isn’t like these female herders have ever known anything else. When one of them replies, “what is it like for you to be a female artist?”, she is being snappy, but she also isn’t wrong to point out what a strange, unsuitable question that is. 

For someone who once was part of this community — and, as we later find out, once herded reindeer herself, before controversially selling all her animals — Lena seems strangely wide-eyed and her approach oddly unsophisticated. Gaup’s rather one-note performance and the film’s often cheap look (especially during close-ups) do not help matters, and distract from the genuinely intriguing and thorny matter of being an outsider to your own community of origin. Although we do not see Lena’s previous life in Oslo, we can imagine that she may have felt like something of an outsider there, too, hence her decision to come back. Or did she only return to exploit her “exotic” background, then go flaunt it in her work back in Oslo? Lena herself barely seems to register this dynamic, but it is nicely echoed in the character of Mahtte, who grows tempted to abandon the difficult life of herder himself. Although he works hard taking care of the animals — and the best parts of the film are those that show us what this involves — he still hasn’t been made manager of the family herd. There are interesting hints here that the romance between him and Lena could be one based solely on frustration from both parties, each looking for some temporary validation, and that their different ambitions and perspectives would ultimately lead them to separate. The Tundra Within Me opts for a more conventional, sincere perspective that fails to convince, but its exploration of difficult ideas around a person’s place in their community remains worthwhile. 

The Tundra Within Me was produced by Norway’s Freedom From Fear stories

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