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TORONTO 2023 Centrepiece

Review: Je’vida


- The subdued black-and-white film from Finnish director Katja Gauriloff looks at a young girl cut off by force from her Sámi roots

Review: Je’vida
Agafia Niemenmaa in Je'vida

Katja Gauriloff’s Je’vida [+see also:
film profile
, playing in the Centrepiece programme of the Toronto International Film Festival, is based on a simple idea: you can’t run away from your past. More interesting, and at the heart of the film, is the question of why someone would even try. As Iida (Sanna-Kaisa Palo) and her niece Sanna (Seidi Haarla) visit the house where Iida and her recently departed sister grew up, the younger artist is confused and frustrated by her aunt’s persistent silence. But it isn’t long before the house, in the snowy wilderness far in the north of Finland, unlocks long repressed memories for the older woman. 

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Shot in sumptuous black and white by director of photography Tuomo Hutri, the film retraces Iida’s life from childhood to adulthood through key moments that have stayed with her, and therefore adopts an aesthetic halfway between realistic fiction and dream logic. The young Je’vida (as is her real name, in the Skolt Sámi language of her family) was her grandfather’s favourite, always keen to learn the traditional ways of fishing and caring for the nets. The little girl (a very convincing Agafia Niemenmaa) overhears him and her mother talk about sending her to boarding school, like her older sister, but grandpa is adamant that she must stay on and keep the Sámi ways alive. When he dies and she is sent to get a Finnish education, she does not stop seeing him or talking to him — at least not right away.

Much of Je’vida’s life then involves listening to other people talk about her, such as her family who decide her fate, the mean kids who make fun of her at school, and the adults who teach her Finnish. The film spends some time on her process of adaptation, which really was a process of surrender, as her short bout of rebellion was met with cruel punishment from racist teachers. These are harrowing moments to see, and we can understand why grown-up Iida is reluctant to explain to her niece how come her mother never told her about the house or spoke about her own sister. But it still feels like the film could have done more to translate the muted yet intense pain Iida must feel. 

In the same way, it would have been interesting to explore some more the effects of this brutal uprooting on the young woman (Heidi Juliana Gauriloff) Je’vida grew up to be. The fact that she works in a hotel cafeteria suggests she perhaps did not do well in the hostile school, and it’s clear she stays in the area to look after her ageing grandmother. But she seems torn between loving and hating her origins: she is somewhat ashamed of her grandmother, and when the elderly woman gives her money, Iida uses it to buy herself a nice pair of shoes — as a child, she spurned the leather boots she was given. When an engineer from Helsinki walks into the restaurant, we see Iida turn her ability to listen and adapt to her advantage: she seduces him, her ticket out of this place.

Perhaps the fact that we can draw all these conclusions about Iida’s desires and state of mind, but not really feel her emotions, is a way for the film to echo her own disconnect from them. When Iida tells her niece “You asked what you should ask [...]. I never knew how.”, this is what she is talking about. But it would have been interesting to learn how this history impacted not just the logical decisions she made (learning Finnish, buying shoes, seducing the engineer) but her personality, her relationships with others, and her life in general. We know she didn’t speak to her sister — how come? The film is ultimately more a document of atrocities (we learn in an on-screen text at the end that most Sámi children were forced into Finnish boarding schools until the 1980s), than a portrait of its titular protagonist. 

Je’vida was produced by Finland’s Oktober Oy. The film will be distributed in Finland by Future Film Oy Ab. International sales are handled by The Yellow Affair (US). 

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