This year’s Scandinavian Film Festival started with an important and imposing feature that showcased the true story of the Sami tribe and their fight with the Norwegian government over building the Alta dam and what it would do to their land and their future as a culture. It’s a harrowing re-telling of the frightening events centred around Ester (Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen) and her coming of age, discovering her Sami heritage in a family that wants her to forget. Director Ole Giæver expertly shapes the story around Ester as she lives in two worlds and must choose which one she will connect with. It’s a bold and gorgeous film that is not afraid to portray the events accurately while balancing an emotional story of a young woman finding her way in the world.
The story recounts the real-life events from 1979 to 1981 (although the aesthetic of the interior of the houses had me thinking it was 1969), and while all eyes are on Ester, her cousin Áilu, a young Sámi artist, as he grapples with his identity and the responsibilities he feels towards preserving his heritage. His influence on Ester and her colonisation is a great motivator to introduce what is happening to the audience, and by slowly bringing Ester into the conflict allows us to have total empathy with the protests and what the government is doing to the local Sami tribe.
It’s a chilling and intriguing story set against the lush backdrop of Norway. The Atla River region is covered in snow and ice that fits in with the typical dress of the Norwegian folk. When Ester and Ailu dress up in their traditional Sami dress with gorgeous reds, vibrant blues and patterns, it really shine a reflective light on the landscape and the Sami’s relationship to the land. It’s something that director Ole Giæver absolutely nails and is able to combine the performances from the cast alongside the innocence of a young woman finding herself caught between two worlds.
What really stood out here is the director’s bold choice to embrace the harshness of the events and not shy away from them in any respect. The impact of the government’s decisions and what it would do to the traditional custodians of the land is clearly seen and will have you truly shaking your head as to why they didn’t listen. From the Sami boots that Norwegians start wearing to survive the harsh winter, to then witnessing the Sami being booted out of pubs, hotels and restaurants for simply being who they are, is a harrowing reminder that this was not really that long ago.
This film will sit with you long after you have left the cinema, the subtle choices and their effects on the environment around them are introduced slowly and reflected in the faces of the people it impacts. As the protest erupts and we see Ester move from teenager to womanhood, the film reaffirms its focus on her journey and transition from the colonised community to her family’s tribe. It is a beautifully epic tale that needs to be seen on the big screen.
Let The River Flow is now showing as part of the 2023 Scandinavian Film Festival.
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