Review of Ellos eatnu — La elva leve (2023)

Moving picture, 118 minutes

Seen in 2023.

Ca. 1979, Ester returns to the northernmost region of Norway—where she grew up—to teach at a local school. Initially, she conceals her minority Sámi ethnicity at work, but she’s radicalized through her involvement with Folkeaksjonen mot utbygging av Alta-Kautokeinovassdraget. This is a Sámi-led movement of civil disobedience against the Norwegian parliament’s decision to dam the Alta and Kautokeino rivers for hydroelectric power, one of a long series of encroachments upon Sámi land.

The style of this film reflects how the Sámi have been marginalized and colonized by more populous and militarily powerful nation states since the 17th century. The specific struggle to prevent the damming of the rivers was ultimately lost, like the US campaign for Hetch Hetchy, in a way that is hinted at here but not confirmed by reference to the Norwegian’s supreme court’s decision to support the parliament.

The historical facts are not contradicted, but not central. The film is primarily an attempt to do again what Ester, in the film, does in Oslo in 1980, which is to bring visibility to a political cause that is continually marginalized. Accordingly, the film is primarily a drama. It hovers, sometimes awkwardly, between the conventional formulae of a drama, which could bring more attention, and political sincerity, which would be contradicted by the conventional formulae. For example, there are no living reindeer in the movie, only pelts. There are fishermen, which is historically correct, but none of the local Sámi are identified as nomadic herders, the occupation most typically associated with the Sámi, most deeply tied to colonizer legislation, and most romanticized.

I don’t know if reindeer herding was important at Alta, but a more commercial director would have included it regardless. They would also have included a love story, but there is no romance at all in this film, despite the presence of Mihkkal, a smouldering bad boy and childhood friend. The exclusion of love is the most obvious and deliberate break from conventional formulae: A forsaken opportunity to sell more tickets instead of focusing, as the film does, on the politics. Joiking is included, but the more exotic nåiding (shamanism) is not. There are pretty pictures of natural scenery, but not the full-blown Romantic Sublime. Incidentally, the 1980 film La elva leve! is completely excluded, which feels less natural.

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, the pop star in the leading role as Ester, was active in civil disobedience at Repparfjord while the movie was made. A documentary about her, “Rahčan — Ellas opprør” (2022), includes some motifs absent in Ellos eatnu. Among them are shots of (living) reindeer, explicit mention of the economic importance of reindeer herding, and even an example of reindeer herding being associated with popular racist stereotyping of Sámi on Norwegian television. The documentary also shows Ella’s boyfriend—the romance absent in Ellos eatnu—and includes a brief historical overview: Quite a few things that could have worked in the fiction film.

With regard to conventional formulae, the death of Mihkkal is not so clear cut. He is not truly martyred in the struggle. Instead, he kills himself, by the rather difficult method of hanging himself from a low ceiling. This is only weakly foreshadowed by his apathy and the lending of his car to Ester. Unrealistically, there are no insincere or failed suicide attempts, no talk about suicidal ideation etc., only the sudden revelation of his death, which is formulaic. Mihkkal’s funeral is held in a church despite the participation of Christian institutions in colonization. The priest gently blames the state for Mihkkal’s death, and later on, a flag that Mihkkal finished sewing takes on a symbolic role associated with martyrs in cinema. The film thus approaches martyrdom—even specifically Christian martyrdom—as a motif to heighten the drama, but does not fully commit to it. There is, of course, no equivalent death in “Rahčan”.

I wouldn’t say that the lack of commitment to martyrdom is purposefully ambiguous or modernistic, but rather that the makers are half-hearted about their precise compromise between popular filmmaking and activism. In the same way that the political struggle could not have been won by making a movie, the movie could not have been made in a way that perfectly serves its two goals: Popularity and straight-faced activism for an impopular cause. The movie’s specific solution to this dilemma is not original or very interesting, and the result is not deeply moving, but it is moving. The shifting of the seasons and carefully constructed period sets provide the necessary grounding through realism, replacing enough of the formula to keep the lost cause interesting.

moving picture fiction