Let the River Flow (Ellos Eatnu – La Elva Leve) Review – A Vibrant, Thoughtful Song of the Sámi

The Sámi people have long lived in the Sápmi region, which includes the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Russia. Until recently, they have farmed reindeer, and fished for their livelihood. Let the River Flow tells the story of Norway in the 1970s, where Sámi farmers were being forced to sell, and a dam was to block the river. The protesting of this dam, and its effect on the Sámi people is true to life, but the film’s characters are fictional. But even so, it’s a warm, thoughtful, powerful, and beautiful story, and it’s one that challenges its viewers to face the injustices of suppression and assimilation.

Ester (Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen) has learned to conceal her Sámi heritage, but when she returns to her hometown to teach, her cousin Mikkhal (Gard Emil) takes her to a Sámi protest. She resists supporting the Sámi– her family and friends– and only wants to fit in, to belong. But as she begins to realise the effects that desire for conformity has had on her people–their children are bullied, their language is suppressed– she joins the protests and takes part in a hunger strike. As the protests continue, the government takes notice and Ester, Mikkhal, and all the Sámi are tested.

What’s especially interesting about the assimilation of the Sámi, is that without their language or their clothing, they’re completely indistinguishable from the Norwegians. By the 1970s, it’s exceptionally easy for them to blend in, and much harder to stand out. Writer-director Ole Giæver has cleverly intensified this effect by using the vibrant red, blue, and yellow of the Sámi clothing against the drab browns, greens and greys of the Norwegians. And taking this a step further, she’s put the Norwegian subtitles in white, and the Sámi subtitles in yellow– which becomes more than just a charming idea when Ester speaks out against a barbed comment and another colleague speaks up as a Sámi for the first time.

It’s these small moments and the fine details that make Let the River Flow work so well, so touchingly Ester’s grandmother sings a Joik (A traditional Sámi song) while the two pick snowberries on a summer day; Ester sings a Joik to a young boy on a winter night– But that doesn’t make this a film that needs your close attention either. The film grain, warm tones, and lush landscapes wash over you and relax you; they calmly draw you into the picture. But as the protesting grows tense, and the summer turns to winter, that warm texture cools and the film climaxes with a chilling scene followed by a shot of a tractor covered in snow. It lingers on this white blanket of snow and the effect is heartbreaking. The change from warmth to cold is done so subtly, so naturally, that it’s completely unnoticed until it’s too late. After that (and the film’s quiet conclusion), it’s impossible to come out of Let the River Flow without feeling great compassion for the Sámi, love for their grassy Fjords and hope for the culture and variety of the world.

Director: Ole Giæver

Cast: Ivar Beddari, Maria Bock, Bernt Bjørn

Writer: Ole Giæver

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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