Folklore, Boundaries and Audience in The Pathfinder
In 1989, a new film appeared. Entitled Ofelaš (“The Pathfinder”), it stars Mikkel Gaup as a young Sami man, facing cosmic evil, the question of duty, and the prospects of love and belonging in the ancient Sami North. The screenplay, authored by the film’s director Nils Gaup, adapts a common Sami legend about evil marauders, the Chudes (in Northern Sami orthography čuđit ) and a clever boy who defeats them. To the surprise of film critics in Scandinavia and beyond, director Gaup and producer John M. Jacobsen chose to produce the film in Northern Sami, a language threatened by long-term assimilative pressures and the process of language attrition among Scandinavia’s indigenous minority. To the astonishment of film critics and audiences alike, Ofelaš became a smash success, not only in Norway where it was produced, or in Scandinavia as a whole, but in the entire West.
In this paper, I propose to examine Ofelaš as an artistic entity and as a product of Sami cultural revitalization. By attending to the decisions which Nils Gaup makes regarding the content and form of his film, we can sense, in addition to the creation of a great film, the careful construction of an image of Sami culture, designed to rekindle Sami cognizance and pride in their cultural heritage and to extend knowledge of the Sami people to the rest of the world. I use Anthony F. C. Wallace’s theory of cultural revitalization as well as Fredrik Barth’s theory of ethnic boundary formation as tools for conceptualizing and interpreting this process of construction. At the close of the paper, I reflect on how folklorists can approach a work of art or literature as part of a communal process of ethnic identity formation, focusing on the work’s content as well as its use or interpretation within the community. Ofelaš is more than an entertaining and exciting film: it is a proposition to Sami and non-Sami alike regarding the identity and future of Sami people.
[T]he assimilationists were starting to believe their work of
deculturizing the Sami was about to succeed. Many Samis had
ceased using their mother tongue as the main language in their
homes; the traditional way of singing, the Sami yoik, was
vanishing, and the people’s belief in the importance of traditional
values was declining.
So writes Harald Gaski (1994) in a
characterization of the artistic and ethnic life of Nordic Sami during the 1970s
and early 80s. With the advent of a few key artistic leaders, however, most
notably Finnish Sami author Nils-Aslak
Valkeapää, Norwegian Sami rock singer Mari Boine, and Norwegian Sami filmmaker Nils Gaup, the tide began to turn. The phenomenon of bouncing back from assimilative tendencies in art or social action – termed
cultural revitalization in Anthony F. C. Wallace’s classic study of 1956 – is one of attitude as much as content: it represents a given community’s conscious choice to maintain and reassert cultural difference despite (or even because of) long-term processes of acculturation, language attrition, and political disenfranchisement.
As Fredrik Barth (1969) observes in his seminal redefinition of ethnicity – a definition embraced and extended by folklorists in the decades following his famous essay – revitalistic cultural representations, like all expressions of ethnicity, involve the articulation of cultural boundaries. Aspects of cultural practice become identified as symbols of essential cultural difference, creating boundaries which separate the ethnic group from its neighbors and divide the social world into a recognizable inside and outside. Different symbols may be chosen at different times, reflecting the resources and realities of the ethnic group at any given moment. Language, dress, place of residence, customs, festival, religion, political orientation – all become potential symbols for the demarcation of ethnic distinctiveness. And often, in cultural revitalization movements, it is the job of a few charismatic leaders to select and shape these symbols. In many cases in European cultural history, these leaders have been artists or authors.
What, then, is involved in the work of a cultural revitalist? How does an artist – someone expert in the use of a particular expressive form – harness that talent to the work of recovering or reawakening a community’s sense of self? In order to accomplish their work, revitalist artists must create products which to some extent play to two polities at once, polities on either side of the asserted cultural boundary. First, the work must be directed toward designated outsiders – the larger, seemingly culturally homogeneous polity seeking to assimilate the community into itself. Artists involved in the work of cultural revitalization often adopt the images, discursive forms and tropes of the “outside” audience as the framework through which to express cultural distance from it. In this way, they adopt, in the way of Caliban, the colonizer’s own idiom as a tool for criticism and derogation. When voices of authority and taste in the designated outside community confer marks of recognition upon such revitalistic artworks – e.g., international film awards, The Nobel Prize for Literature, The Nordic Literature Prize, perhaps even the simplest award of the right to print – they simultaneously affirm the artistic merit of the work in question and lend support and legitimacy to the efforts of the revitalist. Within the outside community, the artist becomes accepted as a legitimate voice of a cultural Other, even if the artistic work that has served as the vehicle for this expression demonstrates intimate familiarity with the artistic norms of the outside society, a society in which the revitalist may live and function as a fully enfranchised member. By playing to the outside audience, the revitalist artist is also able to address those potential members of the inside community who have forsaken their insiderness for the dream of conformity.
At the same time, however, a revitalist artist’s work should, and indeed must, play to the “inside” audience – the community of people willing or able to assume the cultural identity now valorized. This audience may prove even harder to win over than the first, for often in revitalization movements the great majority of community members are engaged in exactly the opposite enterprise from revitalization: marching, seemingly inexorably, toward the goal of assimilation, abandoning the language or cultural traits now re-presented as treasures, seeking acceptance in the community now stigmatized as rapacious, insensitive, or inert. Often, the most culturally conservative members of the insider community are also the least upwardly mobile: those members who have been most blessed with talents or opportunities are often the ones who have left the old culture the farthest behind. Potential members of the insider community must thus reposition themselves both in relation to their membership in the ethnic community and in their orientation to the now distinct outside. Through works which celebrate the distinctiveness and merit of the inside culture, the revitalist artist must convince other community members that entrance into the outside culture should not be viewed as a shining achievement but rather as amnesia, self-loss, and defeat. Within the framework of an artistic product, the revitalist artist must prove that maintenance of the ancestral cultural identity can rightly be viewed as cognizance, self-realization, and triumph, the very assertions which have drawn community members toward assimilation for years, or centuries, before.
In this light, Nils Gaup’s Ofelaš can be seen as a revitalist text par excellence, playing to both outside and inside audiences in ways which assert a shining Sami identity and underscore clear cultural boundaries. Adopting the familiar and comprehensible idiom of the Hollywood adventure thriller with a small add-on of Scandinavian Bildungsroman, Gaup presents to an outside audience a culture resilient and resistant to outside threats. At the same time, Gaup plays to an “insider” audience of Sami, deeply divided by national, religious, and occupational differences, creating common ground upon which to assert a unified identity. He does so through the use of folklore – of traditions both active and inactive among contemporary Sami communities – traditions which all Sami, regardless of place of residence or lifestyle, may regard as a common heritage. It is this dual agenda of cultural revitalization which brings into relief the remarkable challenges which faced Gaup in planning his film and demonstrates the remarkable success of the work he created.
Playing to the Outsider
A film based on a Sami legend and performed almost entirely in Northern Sami language (the film’s villains, the Chudes, do not speak a Sami language but rather a synthetic language devised for the production) would seem at first to offer little opening to the non-Sami viewer. In fact, however, Ofelaš displays a filmic idiom familiar to anyone who has watched American adventure films, be they Westerns, thrillers, or love/adventure stories. Leit-motif images of suspense and warning (including the telltale appearance of a raven whenever the villainous Chudes are on the move), eerie thriller music (seamlessly mixed, however, with traditional Sami yoik), a suspense-driven narrative structure, and complete resolution of plot conflicts by the film’s end all contribute to the film’s comprehensibility to international media-literate non-Sami audiences. In fact, Ofelaš would not have gained access to audiences outside of Norway had its idiom not appeared transparent to outside viewers. Rocco Viglietta, a vice president for the American film distributor Carolco, the organization which eventually propelled the film to international fame, made his key decision to carry it on the basis of this outside comprehensibility alone. In an interview in the New York Times from 1989 (the year the film was released) Viglietta describes his first viewing of an un-subtitled trailer for the film as follows: “I had no idea what was going on […] but […] I realized there was something there. ” That “there”-ness prompted Viglietta to offer producer John Jacobsen a half-million dollars (plus a percentage) for the film’s international distribution rights. The familiarity of the narrative and imagistic apparatus of Ofelaš , in other words, offset its exotic language and setting in the eyes of the film industry which would market the film. The film’s phenomenal box-office success and recognition as a near-winner or winner of an array of prestigious film awards, also reflects this outside comprehensibility.
Granting a filmic idiom which makes outsider viewers feel somehow “at home,” Ofelaš must also negotiate the presentation of complex esoteric lore crucial to an understanding of the Sami world as recreated in the narrative. While certain esoteric aspects are left unglossed for the outside audience – e.g., the siida system of social organization, the use and function of the winter encampment, the identity of the malevolent Chudes – a few key cultural features are singled out for explicit explication. The first of these occurs early on in the film, as the narrative sets the groundwork for the bear ceremonial. Here, the uninformed audience member is inscribed within the scene itself in the person of an innocent youth (Ovi) waiting to be instructed in the cultural verities of the community. The boy – and through him, the audience – learns why the bear must be called by an epithet (dárffot ), and how the bear hunt will occur. Eerie music behind the explanation (a Hollywood filmic trope designating information to be taken seriously) and the chief and Sierge’s impressive air throughout their delivery of the cultural content compel boy and audience alike into humble acquiescence, despite the exotic nature of the information conveyed. The boy is used as a surrogate outsider twice in this segment, returning to the scene after the bear hunt when he asks where the hunter himself is. This time, the mother is on hand to answer with seriousness and intensity his (and the outside audience’s) uninformed questions. The hunter must remain away for three days, lest the acquired power of the bear sear the eyes of unwitting onlookers. Only with the aid of a metal ring – a circle – can the destructive effect be avoided: “ Dat goddá goddima vuoimmi ja luoihtá eallima vuoimmi eallit ” (“This kills the power of killing and lets the power of life live”). The image becomes a mise en abyme for the entire narrative, as Aigin will eventually come to recognize the power of the circle, of connectedness, over the power of senseless death and destruction. Significantly, however, these two occurrences of the questioning boy bracket the cryptic scenes which represent the shaman’s ritual choosing of the hunter, and the actual hunt itself, ethnographic details left entirely mysterious for outsiders. Thus, although portions of the narrative are glossed for the outside audience, portions remain unexplained, leaving the audience partially in the dark and obviating in an understated manner the cultural boundary between insider and outsider after all. By portraying the uninformed in the guise of a little boy, the filmmaker reminds the outsider audience of its callow lack of familiarity with the cosmic realities described.
Together with a later scene depicting the young hero Aigin’s indoctrination in shamanic worldview at the hands of the wisened Raste, this bear scene creates an instructive, quasi-ethnographic axis within the film, clarifying the film’s content to an audience who must be “brought along” and also made to recognize a cultural gulf throughout. In this latter instruction scene, the film makes use of a generalized image of philosophical training common in Hollywood Bildungsroman films from Kung Fu, to Karate Kid, to the Yoda-Luke relation in Return of the Jedi. In each, a fiery but as-yet-unsteady male protagonist receives impressive lessons for proper life and battle from a wise, elderly male stranger. In all of these films, as in Ofelaš , the narratives’ wise men tell hero and audience alike that battle must be approached – if at all – from a serious, philosophically-grounded perspective. Raste’s advice, summed up in an explication of cosmological monism and using the Chudes as examples of human beings who have lost touch with the circle of creation, is marked within the film’s textual idiom as weighty and significant. It is directed toward an end in sight within the narrative itself and outward toward the eavesdropping audience of both cultural insiders and outsiders. The audience is to hear these words as worthy advice for living, affirming in so doing, the inherent wisdom and value of the insiders’ traditions and their clear difference from an implied outsider mentality. Gaup does not attempt a full-blown depiction of shamanic initiation, however; he merely invokes the notion of a difference in worldview, aligning the insider/Sami view with the hero and the light and leaving the Chudes for stand for the outside view and its embrace of darkness.
It is significant that the moments chosen for greatest explication in Gaup’s film – the bear ceremonial and cosmological monism – are commonplace knowledge to most educated Sami, regardless of their backgrounds. These are views from which contemporary Sami may be estranged, but they are nonetheless aware of their centrality to Sami in the past. They have been widely studied and long recognized as important and longlived aspects of Sami religion (e.g., Bäckman 1975, Norlander-Unsgaard 1985, Kjellström 1987). The esoteric knowledge presented, in other words, glosses simultaneously the narrative for the outsider and reaffirms cultural knowledge for the insider. The very filmic moments that render the film more “user-friendly” for the outside audience thus serve affirmative functions for the Sami audience as well, accentuating the insiders’ enduring cultural distinctiveness and underscoring the cultural boundary which separates Sami from non-Sami.
Playing to the Insider
If Ofelaš makes use of filmic devices easily recognized and comprehended by audiences throughout the West, then, how does it play to Sami audiences in the Nordic region itself? By what means is the film designated as an item for insider consumption and how does it draw that designated insider audience to it in sympathy and acceptance? We might remember that the potential Sami audience is far-flung and diverse, crossing national, religious, political, and occupational lines. Age-old intra-Sami cultural divides have been accentuated by centuries of destructive social policies, nation-based conflicts, and wartime relocations. With such a diversity of cultural traits, selecting any handful of unifying symbols can prove extremely problematic. Here again, however, it is the simultaneous assumption of an outside audience which proves the key to playing successfully to the designated pan-Sami viewership.
One of the most obvious unifying symbols for virtually any ethnic group is language. And at first glance, one might think that the choice of making Ofelašin Sami language would offer a natural and immediate focus for communal identification. Such might well be the case, of course, if there were only one Sami language, and if all Sami spoke it with ease and familarity. Such, however, is not the case. The Sami language used in the film is the northern variety, an idiom shared by many communities (albeit with marked dialect differences) across Finnmark, northern Sweden and Finland. As a language, its shares basic grammatical structure and many simple lexemes with a number of other Sami languages still spoken to a lesser extent in other parts of Samiland (Svonni 1993). These “other” Sami languages – which often differ markedly from the northern variety in lexicon and pronunciation – receive relatively little attention from either state authorities or the world at large. The issue of language thus carries with it certain potential friction within pan-Sami meetings, aggravated further by generational shifts toward non-Sami languages as mother tongues. Since Northern Sami has risen in recent years to the status of an ipso facto standard, its use in the film may be regarded as more universalizing than, say, the Inari Sami used by Annel Nieiddat (“the Girls of Anggel”) – the famed female yoik trio from the Lake Inari region of northern Finland – or the self-consciously partially revived Southern Sami of the yoik/rock group Almetjh Tjöönghkeme (“A Gathering of People”) from Sweden (cf. Jones-Bamman 1993). Nonetheless, it is clear that only a portion of the entire potential Sami audience could follow the film’s dialogue without occasional reference to the subtitles.
Here again, the simultaneous presence of the outside audience provides a means for avoiding what might otherwise prove a divisive or discomforting effect of the use of the native language. By setting the narrative in the distant past – when all Sami could be said to have shared some sort of Sami language – at least they all shared an absence of a increasingly more dominant Scandinavian or Finnish substitute language – and subtitling the film (ostensibly for the benefit of the “outside” audience), the notion of language as a cultural link can be rescued and reactivated. Now, all Sami in the audience can at least identify again with “the” Sami language, even if generations of anti-Sami language policy and assimilative trends have precluded true intimate familiarity.
If language is rescued as a rallying point for the insider audience, Ofelaš also offers the Chude tradition as a further piece of common ground. Few legend cycles enjoy as widespread and consistent a distribution in Samiland as do these tales of malevolent evil-doers attempting to ambush and conquer unsuspecting Sami communities (Itkonen 1963). Similar tales – catalogued by Christiansen (1958) as type ML 8000 – are told about wartime threats throughout the Nordic region, but in the far north they almost always feature a Sami hero, regardless of whether the teller is Sami or not (cf. Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1988: 354-55, Christiansen 1964: 13- 14). As I have shown elsewhere (DuBois 1995), Sami versions of these tales follow a similar recurrent plot, one which hinges on the Sami hero’s ability to use the natural landscape to his advantage. In general, he uses his skill in the Chude’s language as well as his quick wits to lure the enemy to their doom. Typical of such legends is the following variant, recorded in 1902 from Anders Larsen, a schoolteacher born in 1870 in Kvænangen, Norway:
In Alta there is a place called Ruoššaluokta (“Russian Bay”). They tell this story about it:
Once the Russian Chudes ( Ruoššačuđit ) were about; they had taken a boy from Rairo (Leirbotn) to show them the way over the mountain to Reašvuonna (Rafsbotn). It grew dark up on the mountain and the boy said to the Russians:
“You must follow me. But I think it best that you tie yourselves together so that you won’t lose track of each other.” The Russians agreed to do so; only one old Russian refused to be tied to the rest. Then the boy said:
“When you see my birchbark torch going ahead of you, you must follow quickly behind. We will be nearing the houses then.” The boy went in front with the Russians tied together behind him. He led them out on a precipice; himself, he ducked into a crevice in the mountainside and threw the burning torch over the precipice. The Russians noticed that the torch had started to move quickly. They thought that they had come to the edge of the village and hurried after and hurtled off the mountain. Because they were bound together, the first off dragged the rest after him. When the first shrieked, the last thought they had reached the people. Only the old Russian was suspicious; but the boy went and pushed him off the cliff as well.
Then the boy went down to where the people were and saw that they were celebrating a wedding and making merry. The boy said to them:
“You are having fun here and do not know that death was
nearly upon you.” They didn’t believe him. But in the morning,
when they went to look, they saw the Russians at the foot of the
mountain. A few of them were still a little alive; they recognized the
boy at once; they only shook their fists at him.
(Qvigstad 1928: no. 153.6; 536-539)
Another variant collected by J. A. Friis in the 1850s gives a slightly different version of the story:
In the old days there was a Russian Chude band (okta roššačuhti)u who travelled about the world killing people whereever it came. This Chude band came to a little village that lay all alone and killed all the people there except for one boy whom they let live to act as a guide (oappesen) to other villages. But this boy was very clever (gavvil); he set out to guide the Russians and conducted them to an unknown place from which they knew not how to leave, and they asked the boy whether he knew the way out. The boy answered:
“I know the way well,” and so they went along the whole day. But when evening came and it grew quite dark, so that the Russians could not see where to go, the boy said:
“It would be best if I were to bind you all together, so that you don’t stray apart.” The Russians agreed to this plan and allowed themselves to be tied together; but two old Russians refused to allow themselves to be bound and they remained loose. They went along on the journey with the others. Those who were bound walked in a line with the boy leading them and it was now so dark they could not see anything of what might come upon them. But the boy told them where they needed to go. He said:
“If I begin to go fast, you too, must start going fast,” and the boy had a torch in his hand. He needed a torch too, for not even he would have known where to go otherwise, it had grown so dark. He counselled them further, saying:
“If you see the light in my hand go forth quickly, you too, must go forth quickly, and if you hear voices, you will know that I am in a fight and then you must run as fast as you can to help me.” They went on that way for a long time; but the boy, who knew the area well, knew of a high mountain which had a deep crevasse in it, and he looked for the way to lead the string of Russians there. But he had difficulty finding it, it was so dark. At last, he found the crevasse and when he came to it he shoved the first Russian and threw the torch in his hand and called out:
“Come, come help me!” And when the first Russians fell, they pulled the others down with them who were tied together and so they all fell into the crevasse. The two Russians who had not allowed themselves to be bound also came to the crevasse. But the boy shoved them in as well.
When the boy had gotten them all into the crevasse, he went to the village which was closest and when he got there, there was a young couple getting married and he saw their merriment. He took his gun and shot the crown off the bride’s head and said:
“That’s what would have become of you all had I not saved you from the death which was about to overtake you.” But they did not believe what the boy said; instead they seized him and held him prisoner and a few days later they went to see if what the boy had said was true or not. But when they got there and saw what the boy had done, they wondered at the boy’s strength and wit. The Russians who lay in the deep crevasse were not all dead yet – a few were surely dead. But when those who were still alive saw the boy who had tricked them, they grew enraged and said:
“If we had known what kind of man you were, we would have killed you long ago.” But the boy was so tough (garas) that he took a wooden club and went down into the crevasse and beat them all dead. Then he climbed back out, and when he got back up, they all went home.
But when the king heard of what the boy had done, he gave
him a reward so that he would never need to work again as long as he
lived but would receive everything he wanted and needed for free.
(Qvigstad 1928: 153.13a; 546-550)
In these narratives, as in the vast majority of collected variants of this type, certain aspects of the hero and his relation to the community emerge. The hero agrees to go with the Chudes willingly but with the clear intention of leading his captors astray. In Finnmark versions, he often has to deal with one or two older Chudes who suspect his motives and refuse to be tied, a detail, which Gaup includes in his film version. The boy must dispose of these less gullible Chudes through active combat rather than trickery alone. Once he has succeeded, however, the boy goes down to the village where the assembled people, usually in the midst of celebrating a wedding, treat his loud assertions of bravery with doubt, ridicule, or cruelty. In the morning or following days, however, they follow the boy into the mountains, where they see incontrovertible proof of his claims.
Compared to many legends, this Chude tale pays a good deal of attention to the hero’s personality and possible motivations. Sometimes he helps other Sami communities; sometimes the village saved is inhabited by Scandinavians. In either case, the same self-assuredness, which leads the boy to his successful ruse, leads him to brag about it to the assembled villagers who view him negatively. Audience attention is drawn to strains in the relation of the boy to the village, strains not addressed directly in the tale but rather obviated by the details of the plot. We wonder why the boy chooses to save the villagers, why they doubt and distrust him, how they and he feel when the truth comes out. In other words, we are drawn to the same questions in the oral tradition, which Gaup highlights in his film version, making his rendering – in this sense – very faithful to the tone of the oral tradition.
On the other hand, Gaup’s filmic narrative departs from the typical oral versions of the tale in a number of important ways. In using a narrative familiar in Sami oral tradition, Gaup assures himself of a theme recognized and resonant to his insider audience. At the same time, however, familiarity breeds contempt, and Gaup must find ways to reestablish a sense of suspense for an inside audience all-too-conditioned to recognize and predict his narrative’s plot twists. Thus, Gaup works to make his audience uncertain at the outset of the mountain trek sequence that Aigin knows what he is doing. He agrees to guide the Chudes in exchange for their promise to spare Raste’s life, a promise which the audience sees them break immediately but which the character Aigin remains ignorant of for a long period of time. In fact, it is easy to suspect Aigin of the worst kind of folly in the scenes which take place on the mountaintop. Such suspicions are largely impossible within the oral tradition, in which the genre of the Chude tale itself prepares the audience to expect an act of heroic trickery, not an act of foolish betrayal. Gaup’s narrative alteration humanizes his character, rendering him unsure, untried, unpredictable, and rescuing the film’s plot from the surety which would otherwise prevail for the inside audience.
It is worth noting as well, that none of the oral versions if this particular Chude legend – or in fact any Chude tale – include details of either a shamanic initiation or a romantic courtship. Gaup introduces narrative strands, which intertwine with the legendary core, each informing the others in terms of characterization, imagery, plot development, and suspense. Where the typical Chude tale leaves the villagers uncharacterized, Gaup creates a story which humanizes and complicates them, exploring in so doing the conflicts that face a people when confronted with war and genocide. We are allowed to see the villagers as worthy of rescue – something altogether lacking in the legendary accounts – as a community whose only crime is its desire to survive. The village is particularized in the person of the chief, his wife, the elder men, the younger men, the chief’s daughter Sahve, and, of course, the noaidi Raste. The village is not ideal – it has its conflicts and inequities – but it is in most respects an admirable inside community, a cultural entity which insider viewers may embrace as part of their Sami heritage.
A further subtle alteration in Gaup’s filmic version of the Chude legend comes in Aigin’s inability to speak or understand Chude language. Whereever Sami Chude tales are told, the hero is always able to communicate with the enemy in their own language. Indeed, this ability is often cited as a reason for the hero’s success in duping his dimwitted adversaries. Such a skill implies long term contact between Sami and Chude, contact understandable from the protracted history of Scandinavian, Finnish, Karelian, and Russian intrusions on Sami populations and livelihoods from the Viking age onward. But by rendering his character Aigin incapable of understanding Chude speech, Gaup is able to turn the tale into one of initial intercultural contact, in which the suddenly beset Sami community must decide how to deal with a new and imminent danger. It becomes the familiar story but with a new twist.
Other typical details of the Chude tales are played with as well. In a key scene within the film’s progress of mounting tension, Gaup alludes to the torch trick and binding familiar from so many Chude legends. But instead of the hero convincing his captors to follow his torch wherever it leads, Aigin throws the torch over the cliff defiantly, aiming to alert the village below of the approaching danger. A Sami audience may recognize the moment as familiar but finds it renewed in the film, as the scene sutures to the village itself, where a watchful Sahve notices and reports the sign. For the outside audience, the scene is suspenseful and unfamiliar, tied to the character Aigin’s realization of the Chudes’ untrustworthiness; for the insider audience, the scene is a playful nod to generically-informed assumptions. The filmmaker teases the informed Sami audience, affirming their shared oral tradition through playing with it in the film. And when the detail of binding the Chudes together with rope appears in the following scenes, the Sami audience may well wonder whether this detail will appear as usual or become a further instance of intertextual play.
For the insider audience, the shamanic initiation subplot holds tremendously divisive potential, a threat to the feelings of unity and consensus, which the revitalist work should evoke. Noaidevuohta (shamanism), the divinatory drum, and other aspects of Sami pre-Christian religion carry little charm or allure for many members of Gaup’s insider community. While Scandinavians further to the south may dabble in neopaganist explorations of shamanic rituals and worldview with seeming impunity, many Sami in the late 1980s remained ambivalent or opposed to this aspect of their culture’s past. The old religion continues to be viewed as illicit among many Nordic Sami Christians, who belong to either the Lutheran church or the Læstadian sect within it and who often view pre-Christian traditions as irreligious and idolatrous. For many Sami communities, this strong disapproval dates back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when older tendencies toward religious syncretism became castigated by both church authorities and community members alike (Rydving 1995; contrast Orthodox Sami on the Kola peninsula, Storå 1971). This rejection of old mixtures of pre-Christian and Christian views set the stage for the development of strong pietistic and sectarian movements in nineteenth-century Samiland, including the politically committed čuorvvot movement and the later pervasive Læstadianism (Outakoski 1987, 1991). The castigation of pre-Christian practices in these important religious movements, however, contrasted with muted instances of religious continuity among some Sami communities (Kjellström 1987) and a general disinterest in religious experience among the Nordic Lutheran majority populations. Thus, religious adherence – and the image of a Sami shamanic past – holds great divisiveness for Gaup’s audience of potential insiders (Pentikäinen 1995).
In addition to these issues, however, the old religion continues to function as part of the Lapp-djävul stereotype common among non-Sami Scandinavians. The image of a Sami man beating a drum and working magic evokes not simply an image of the pre-Christian past, but a powerful, pervasive, and painful reminder of the present image of Sami in the minds of many of their neighbors. As Mathisen (1989) has shown, this stereotype operates in the Scandinavian community through the telling of common legends about Sami magic and misdeeds, combined with an overall attitude of distrust toward Sami in general. Saressalo (1987) sees Sami tales of dangerous stállu beings as, in part, a native Sami response to the climate of hostility, which has faced them in Nordic societies for centuries. The image of a Sami noaidi thus brings with it immediately this powerful stigma, no matter how personable, handsome, and heroic the character in the narrative may be. In choosing to use the image of noaidevuohta in his film, Gaup thus faces difficult decisions both in terms of his inside and outside audiences.
In order to overcome these vexing difficulties, Gaup places his narrative in the era prior to the arrival of Christianity, avoiding in so doing the need to take sides on the pre-Christian vs. Christian debate. By rendering Sami worldview in its simplest philosophical essentials – i.e., the idea of cosmological monism, the practice of bear ceremonialism, the idea of the noaidi, but without reference to either spirit helpers or gods other than the mysterious reindeer bull – Gaup further avoids the sorest elements of his community’s religious conflicts. For the outside audience, on the other hand, the exoticism of Sami pre-Christian religion is tempered by its clear utility in the narrative: the noaidi is depicted not as a self-actualizing, neopagan practitioner but as an active and responsible community member, accepting his supernatural role as part of his overall service to his adopted community. The image may still reinforce non-Sami stereotypes of the Sami magician, of course, but now in a context of moral approval and in a pre-Christian world in which Sami religion is set beside the religion of wolf-toothed depravity and malice practiced by the non-Sami Chude. No Christian alternative exists as yet, and one can hardly fault the narrative’s Sami for a religion, which seeks harmony, interconnectedness, respect, and compassion.
In addition to his use of Northern Sami language and material culture (skis, houses, sauna, clothing) and sophisticated use of Sami oral tradition, Gaup sprinkles his text with small insider jokes, apparent to the Sami audience but largely missed by Nordic outsiders. One such inside joke is his clear inversion of Scandinavian anti-Sami folklore. Where Scandinavian tradition depicts the Sami as small and dark (Mathisen 1989), Gaup turns the tables by depicting his non-Sami characters as grotesquely elongate and black, towering above their colorful, fair and beautifully dressed victims. Through camera angle and foreground/background placement, Gaup locates the audience’s eye at the height and in the proximity of the Sami characters. The Chudes, in turn, are viewed from afar and often from below, accentuating their distance from the audience’s carefully managed point of view. In depicting the non-Sami enemy in this way, Gaup creates a demonic force, which many non-Sami viewers in Scandinavia equated with Russians, even though the parts were played by Norwegian and Icelandic actors. This Verfremdungseffekt serves as a coy but clear inside joke for Sami audiences. The fact that the Chudes cannot seem to run without getting their Nordic heads caught in high branches further underscores this humor: tallness is no longer the norm and epitome, it is the abnorm, the disadvantage.
Gaup’s inside jokes extend to his choice of cast. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, the undisputed leader in the revitalization of the Sami yoik, plays the chief of the imperiled siida, negotiating between the stand-and-fight attitude of the young Aigin and the run-for-cover attitude of the community’s own Sierge. Valkeapää, for his part, returns the inside joke in his masterpiece Beaivi, áhčážán (1989), placing a photograph of himself as chieftain in the film between ethnographic photos of Sami Anders Hendriksen Valgiaberg and Niels-Nielsen Valgiaberg taken in 1884 (no. 79). Both acts remind audiences of the time elision involved in revitalist art: the past is recovered and made one with the present, not simply for itself but for and by the revitalists of today.
We have seen then, briefly, that a film such as Ofelaš, embedded in a revitalist artistic agenda, must play to two audiences at once. This double responsibility poses challenges to the filmmaker but offers benefits as well. Often, meeting the needs of one audience may deepen the experience of the other, as when subtitles for the non-Sami allow Sami who are not proficient in the language to enjoy the film nonetheless. Further, leaving the needs of an audience unmet may sometimes underscore the ethnic boundaries asserted in the narrative, as when the details of the bear ceremonial, shamanic traditions, or Sami worldview are left obscure, reminding the non-Sami viewers that the culture before them is not their own. Humor and inside joking add texture and playfulness to the text, differentiating insider and outsider in subtle, immediate ways, hardly appreciable to viewers sitting on opposite sides of the aisle.
Gaup’s film and act fall into the category of ethnic identity formation which Barth, in his later reflections on ethnic groups and boundaries (1994), labels the “medial level” (mellomnivået). Poised between the intimate daily interactions of the microlevel of ethnicity and the sweeping, programmatic, governmental decisions of the macrolevel, this medial ground becomes the arena for "entreprenørsvirksomhet, lederskap, og retorikk" (1994:184). Gaup and Ofelašfit all three terms, as they seek to establish a Sami identity which will shape and inform both the daily acts of Sami insiders and, perhaps, the government policies of the Nordic states. Ofelašpresents itself not simply as history or folklore but as a parable, an affirmation of the strength of Sami people when they recognize their common identity as well as their common enemy. Gaup’s Chudes are not dangerous because they are foreign, but rather, because they are evil: they have lost track of the unity which binds all things together and saves mankind from disintegration and depravity. Aigin leads his adopted community – and symbolically, all Sami – away from that abyss of disconnectedness, toward a renewed embrace of unity and a recognition of the responsibilities of the individual to the collective. In a Sami political climate long fragmented by national, economic, linguistic, and religious differences, Gaup’s portrayal offers a powerfully inclusive alternative vision.
It may seem ironic at first that folkloristic research into ethnicity should embrace so thoroughly a theoretical framework, which privileges cultural boundaries over the “kulturelle stoffet” which lies within them (Barth 1994). After all, folklore studies emerged as a discipline out of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarianism, a movement fascinated by the notion of cultural relics, remnants, survivals and intent on collecting and preserving them as items. But Barth’s framework, and the folkloristic research which it has engendered in the last decades, have not reduced but rather broadened the expressions considered germane to folklorists today. Thus, we can examine Ofelaš not simply on the basis of traditional cultural content retained or reused but also in terms of the film’s function within Sami cultural revitalization. Gaup creates a work which draws selectively and strategically from an array of cultural features available for the demarcation of Sami identity. Many prominent features of some sectors of Sami culture are ignored or marginalized. Nor is Gaup’s the only attempt at asserting a pan-Sami identity today. But Ofelašis a particularly effective attempt, one which uses one of the most privileged artistic media of its day to underscore Sami distinctiveness to a vast international audience. The question remains, however, whether and to what extent Sami people will embrace the insider identity Gaup so artfully proffers and to what extent that embrace will translate into changes in the intimate, daily performance of Sami ethnicity. Will the Sami audience of Ofelašaccept the filmmaker and film as pathfinders with the same communal resolve and gratitude with which the characters of the film come to accept Aigin at the narrative’s end? Will this revitalist artist become an Elias Lönnrot – recognized and respected for his revitalist vision – or an Anders Fjellner – forgotten or dismissed? Both inside and outside polities will continue to play a role in the process of assessing the validity and value of Gaup’s image over time. But in the final analysis, the decision lies with Sami people themselves.
Sources and Literature
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