Sydney Film Festival: The Tundra Within Me Director Sara Margrethe Oskal on Love, Tradition, and Individuality in Contemporary Sámi Culture

Director Sara Margrethe Oskal’s Eallogierdu (The Tundra Within Me) is a tale of two worlds. Single mother and artist, Lena has been living in Oslo with her young son. Returning to her hometown in Sámpi territory she confronts her past and lateral violence and falls in love with a reindeer herder. Her presence challenges and honours Sámi tradition and on the tundra, she reckons with individual expressions of indigenous culture.

Nadine Whitney speaks with Sara Margrethe Oskal about her feature playing at Sydney Film Festival on 12 & 14 June 2024.

Eallogierdu is quite a complex film. Traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of Sámi cinema released for wider audiences. I imagine part of this comes from the erasure of Sámi culture over the years. What we see is limited. There is the early Sámi folk horror – The White Reindeer, but it has taken a long time for Sámi stories to be given their own space and festivals.

How does it feel to be contributing to the cinema landscape as well as the literary landscape telling authentic stories?

Sara Margrethe Oskal: I believe I am doing really important work as a filmmaker and storyteller. This is the first contemporary Sámi love story, and it visualizes modern life from both its beautiful and less flattering sides. From a society and a culture that not many people have access to.

I aimed to make the film authentic. I chose not to make the content without conflict. I don’t explain all the cultural elements. I am inviting audience into my culture through the love story, with all these stunning and epic shots from the tundra.

I am proud of being part of the new wave of Sámi filmmaking. There are more Sámi feature films coming.

Eallogierdu does something that films such as Let the River Flow didn’t address – that colonised people can become insular and narrow minded because they have had to fight so hard for their identity to be recognised and respected. Sámi Blood did this partially in a historical context with the protagonist ‘passing’ as Nordic.

That there is a point where Lena’s work is seen as offending Sámi reindeer herders. You come from a similar background to Lena, have you found that by choosing art which comes from a feminist perspective has made people uncomfortable?

SMO: I have always told stories from a feministic perspective, and I have previously created performances and poems with much more uncomfortable subject matter.

I have written and staged theatre performances, used traditional humorous stories, myths, legends and joiks, and created contemporary Sámi jesters.

A jester digs into unpleasant matters, blows the whistle on things that need to be criticized, and uncovers what is concealed. For instance, how Sámi people can use traditions to suppress conversations around domestic violence in Sámi societies, or how we use traditions to oppress each other.

In my experience art opens hearts, for both women and men. It lets us speak.

I do understand people are afraid; my people have been oppressed by the Nordic majority and there is still racism. We have been careful to try to keep the image of the Sámi as nice as possible, because we already face stigma.

Therefore, some people don’t like when the art reveals the truth about us to the whole world. Some are afraid of giving the majority more opportunities to suppress us, to make fun of us, so the racism towards us grows.

But things are changing, we are changing. We need to grow as people, we need to face uncomfortable issues within ourselves, withing our societies, so we become better versions of us.

Lena’s shame is that she left, studied in Oslo, and is a single mother. She is generally disliked in her hometown. Can you tell me a little about writing Lena and her relationship with her son and mother?

SMO: Lena has not been in her hometown for years. She hasn’t taught Sámi culture to her son; not told him about clothing traditions, stayed silent on her own story. She has been afraid of facing her own sorrows and has stayed away.

Her son is the one who initiates non- Sámi audiences into the culture. Through him the audience experiences cultural elements. Sámi humour can be as harsh and coarse as the winters and climate in north. Lena’s mother is good example of that. Her grandson is a quick learner, he knows how to handle his grandmother’s traditional jokes.

Lena is able to honour her father with a joik. For people who aren’t familiar with what the joik means, can you give a brief explanation.

SMO: Juoigat is a unique form of cultural expression for the Sámi people, it is traditional way of singing. It is personal, often dedicated to a person, an animal, or a landscape as a personal signature. Each joik is meant to reflect a person or place. 

Traditionally, joiks have short lyrics or no lyrics at all. During the enforced Christianisation of the Sámi, joiking was condemned as sinful as it was used in pre- Christian rituals.

Despite this suppression the tradition was maintained. And today it is used as an element in contemporary Sámi music.

Reindeer herding is tough and there aren’t many films which show the reality of the day-to-day work. You had a lot of non-professional actors in the film. Were some of them herders?

SMO: All the actors who performed the reindeer herders where actually reindeer herders. They live the life I portray. When I found reindeer herders who also happened to be amazing actors, I knew I could make the film. It would not have become authentic, using trained actors. We managed it because of their skills and me being actor myself. I knew that was very important when directing and making the space safe for experimentation and improvisation.

How important is activism through art for you? Do you think the more ways people see that Sámi life is multifaceted the more people will understand that there are contradictions that cause people to feel outside their community?

SMO: I wanted to dig into the feeling of not belonging in a traditional society and sharing the collective mindset. Particular expectations can have a powerful influence on individuals. There is a sense of stagnation for some Sami youth who want to follow their own dreams like other people do but are caught in keeping their indigeneity alive in a prescribed way.

We follow Lena and Máhtte and feel their interweaving dilemmas and doubts about their choices; to live traditionally or to choose an individual path. To resist the pressure, to give in and accept the societal norms or rebel against them, and in doing so becoming a threat to the established way of life.

Máhtte falls in love with Lena, but he is very much under his mother’s thumb. Garen wants him to marry Biret to create a dynasty. When Lena meets Garen she is hostile towards her. Lena asks Máhtte why he doesn’t stand up for her:

Is it because I don’t have a herd? Or because I have a child? Or because I don’t come from the right family? What would be the right family?”

Máhtte like Lena doesn’t want to be reduced to a single identity. Can you tell me a little about his character?

SMO: Máhtte works in reindeer husbandry with his mother, Garen who manages the herd. Máhtte loves life on the tundra, but he is also facing problems like uncertain pasture conditions for the reindeer; conflicts within the society, uncertain income, and not knowing whether he is ever going to be the herds manager or not.

When he falls in love with Lena, his mother does not approve. He understands he needs to become the man he wants to be, not only for himself, but also for Lena.

Can you tell me a little about the fine art created by Maret Anne Sara for Lena? What is it expressing about gender in Sámi culture?

SMO: Getting Maret Anne Sara onboard was so important, and it was like that her fine art was made for the movie. Her art enriches and lifts the visual potential of the film. Her motifs emphasize the main character’s journey.

Lena is a closed off person, feels alienated in her own culture, but expresses herself through the art. She slowly opens up and lets the pain out, finally finding the strength within her, both as a person and even more so in her art.

The film is impeccably shot. Can you tell me about working with your cinematographer Anders Hoft?

SMO: It is our fifth production. We have developed a close collaboration, and we always aim to find a visual language alternating between magnificent epic total shots of endless snow-covered tundra, and close ups diving into the characters’ weather-beaten faces, revealing their emotions and practical lives. Honing in on people doing their traditional chores showing hands working on tasks of daily necessity and love.

Risten Anine Kvernmo Gaup who portrays Lena is a musician and cultural communicator. Did she write the melodies for the joiks?

SMO: No, she did not. Most of the joiks are personal joiks, which I have been so lucky to get permission to use in the movie. For instance, when Máhtte’s mother makes her decision joiking on the snowmobile, that joik my uncle learned from a female elder. She told us to joik it and honour the summer areas and the reindeer. Some of the joiks are from the artist Marja Mortensson.

What would you like audiences to get out of The Tundra Within Me?

SMO: I want the audience to get the feeling that to face the unknown; to open yourself up for love and to deal with the consequences, you need to dare to find the strength within yourself first. Even if social pressure and loyalty to family and tradition puts pressure on you.

I also want it to be understood that it is vital we maintain and restore the cultural heritage of reindeer herding and that the Sámi community cannot afford to push anyone out. Not everyone can or wants to be a reindeer herder, but everyone can fight to sustain and evolve Sámi culture and traditions for the better.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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