'Believe us when we say we are hurt'

Documentary film maker Suvi West says her people, the Sámi, are still traumatized by the effects of colonization. And that their healing would be a good thing for the whole world.
Kuva: Sanna Lehto

"I think the earth is broken because the people are broken," says West. "So before we can fix the earth, we need to fix ourselves."

West is speaking on a bright spring day in Helsinki, more than 1,200 kilometres south of where she grew up. Located on a river separating Norway from Finland, her home town of Sávvon is in the only Finnish municipality with a Sámi majority.

The Sámi – who today number some 100,000 people – have lived since pre-historic times in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia's Kola Peninsula. While they have no shared capital city, the Sámi in Finland have a representative parliament in the town of Inari. It's here West began her work as a film maker in 2002.

West has always made films through the lens of her people. But while the main theme of her work – acceptance and healing – has remained constant through the years, the way she expresses the theme has changed.

"When I was younger, I approached things through stories of romantic love and relationships," she says. "But something has shifted in me – perhaps when I became a mother – and now I'm interested in the idea of how to heal larger groups, even whole societies."

"Whereas before the main character was a person, now it could be an entire nation."

Filming family first

One of West's early documentaries is about her mother's role as a church social worker. West followed and filmed her mother helping families in need through the spring and summer of 2008.

"When I was a child, I remember my mother sometimes being with a family for two or three nights when something bad had happened to them," she says. "I learnt from an early age that it's important to care about all people in society – not just your immediate family."

Another of West's documentaries covers the subject of homosexuality in the Sámi community, with her sister in the leading role. The autobiographical piece – entitled Spárrooabbán ("Me and My Little Sister") – examines the complexity of her sister's gender identity among the Sámi.

"I have made a lot of autobiographical films, as by bringing my own voice in front of the camera I can protect people while filming them," she says. "I struggle with ethical issues when portraying people in one way or another, and the autobiography format solves this problem for me."

"I also think the autobiography is an honest way to tell stories and explore human feelings and behaviour."

People don't feel good, and it's because of the broken society we live in."

film maker Suvi West

The need to heal

West is troubled by the effects that the forces of colonization and social appropriation have had on her people. She represents the first generation of Sámi not made to attend a Finnish-language boarding school, and she says the older Sámi carry the heaviest burden of traumas.

"This was a cultural genocide, but it's not spoken about," says West. "Our history of assimilation and colonialization is so long, and older generations are weighed down by this trauma. People don't feel good, and it's because of the broken society we live in."

"We need to educate both the Sámi people and society as a whole so they can understand why we are grieving, why we are broken, and why we need to have a safe space where we can take about our collective traumas and heal ourselves," she says.

"Believe us when we say we are hurt."

West explains how the Sámi parliament can only issue statements, it cannot enact laws. Under Finnish legislation, the national government claims to own land the Sámi have always lived on – a legal dispute has ensued for decades. West says climate change, mineral extraction projects, and battles over fishing rights have only magnified issues.

"Sámi politics exists mainly to protect the land," says West. "This is what most of the Sámi people want – for the land to be untouchable."

"Climate change is first visible in the Arctic. Food resources are affected, rivers don't freeze over, and reindeer herds are attacked and weakened by insects more than before," she says. "Now some herders even have to feed their reindeer in the winter."

"The tourist industry is also taking land away from the herders. Roads, power lines, a proposed Arctic railway – the Sámi's land gets smaller and smaller."

A strong shared voice

Cultural appropriation is also a theme in West's work. She points to the Finnish government's use of images of Sámi people when marketing Finland as a tourist and business destination.  Many companies have appropriated Sámi culture too she says, with the Disney film Frozen as the most visible example. 

Like West, there are other Sámi fighting for their culture, language and place in society.

"I think all the Sámi working as teachers, doctors and activists are fighters for our society," says West. "As our population is so small, whether you're making songs or working as a day-care teacher – it's important."

"This is part of the beauty of belonging to an indigenous group – we know that our contribution is important. If someone writes a poem in Sámi and puts it on Facebook, it's important, because it will support the use of the language."

West is now in a group of artists called "Miracle Workers Collective" who will be exhibiting at Finland's Alvar Aalto pavilion during Venice's La Biennale di Venezia from May to November. The eight creatives and film makers are bringing their work together under the title: The greater perception of the miracle.

"It's interesting to see how other people think of the miracle," says West. "For me, it's something larger than life, always positive and wrapped in love."

"I think all the people in the world have a strong connection to Mother Earth, but this connection stopped at different times for different people."

"We cannot heal the earth before we are healthy again ourselves."

Photo: Sanna Lehto


Finland will present its exhibition Everyday Experiments at the XXII Triennale di Milano from 1 March to 1 September this year, featuring twelve experimental projects people are already doing to make their lives more sustainable and equitable. La Triennale di Milano will take place from 1 March to 1 September 2019 and is curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art. Broken Nature will reflect on the relationship between humans and environments at all scales—from the microbiome to the cosmos—including social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.

 Learn more about all 12 Everyday Experiments:

The XXII Triennale, Broken Nature:

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