How fairy tale filmmaking brought a lost language and people back to life

Once upon a time lived a Sámi filmmaker, who drew upon her great-grandmother’s rich history of folk-telling to make the fairy-tale-like Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, a gorgeous storybook that mingles history and animation.

What makes it all the more remarkable is the work of director Katja Gauriloff preserves the legends of the Sámi people, as well as her great-grandmother Kaisa. Many of the Sámi people, the indigenous tribes living in the Arctic Circle of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, were driven into perpetual exile by the hardships of World War Two.

Such a one is Katja, now 44, and born on her mother’s side as a descendant of the Finnish Sámi. “I always loved hearing my mother’s tales,” she recalls. “The Sámi are very good storytellers and I have been listening to my mother all my life.”

Kaisa Gauriloff of Kaisa's Enchanted Forest

Kaisa Gauriloff of Kaisa's Enchanted Forest

Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, which has shown at the Berlin International Film Festival as well as Hot Docs in Toronto, tells the true story of the young Swiss author Robert Crottet, who on his travels to Lapland, is mesmerized by one of the Sámi’s matriarchs, Kaisa Gauriloff. After being acknowledged by the enchanted forest, he is allowed to record the tribe’s legends, as told by Kaisa. The filmmaker uses a delightful style of whimsical animation, but doesn’t shy away from the terrible historical events going on. Perhaps it’s appropriate too: the Sámi tales, like so many folk stories, have a dark edge; a reflection, Katja thinks, “of the landscape and the climate all around them.”

Director Katja Gauriloff

Director Katja Gauriloff

I never got to learn my mother tongue of Skolt Sámi, and I had an identity crisis when I was younger. I started to think: “what happened?”

The war had an appalling impact on the Sámis’ lives and lands, and no matter how resilient they were, they could not salvage all of their ancient practices.

“The war broke out for us in 1938, and by 1942 we had lost our Russian lands, and those living in the east of Finland had to become refugees,” Katja relates. “ They didn’t have much food, no lakes to fish, they became a lost people. We hoped to go back but never did.”

Her mother, Katja relates, was one of “two broken generations, and this affected my whole generation too. I never got to learn my mother tongue of Skolt Sámi, and I had an identity crisis when I was younger. I started to think: “what happened?” It’s been a healing process for me, making films.”

Perhaps healing for everyone, as Katja says that her film “isn’t just for my great-grandmother or my family, but all the people, the whole Sámi community, they feel like it’s their film and it makes us stronger.”

The animation of the fairy stories of Kaisa's Enchanted Forest

The animation of the fairy stories of Kaisa's Enchanted Forest

This is Katja’s second film, and she lives once again in the Arctic Circle. The indigenous rights of the Sámi people and their languages across Scandinaviawere eventually recognized by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Katja, the mother of a son, is one of several indigenous filmmakers, a tribe “who all know each other and we are a family.”

Only 350 people are now thought to speak the Kaisa’s language fluently; until last century it was primarily an oral tradition. Her great-granddaughter needed help to translate some of the tales, and relates, sadly, that “it’s too lost for me to learn properly. It is endangered and perhaps there should be more of a political will in Finland to revive it.”

In the meantime, there is Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest.

Find out more about Katja Gauriloff on Twitter @katjagau