Sunday, May 1, 2011

Finnmark: Laila

The Movie
   Laila is a silent epic (165 min, 1929, directed by George Schneevoigt) filmed entirely in Norway.  It follows the story of Laila, daughter of Norwegian merchants who live amongst the Sami people in the northern part of the country.  The Sami (in olden days called 'Lapps', and not by their choice) were nomadic reindeer herders.  One day, when Laila is still an infant, her parents embark on a journey to a neighboring town for her baptism, to be there at the church when the priest makes his yearly visit.  Through twists and turns of the plot that I won't reveal here, Laila is raised in both nomadic and settled existences and faces serious choices about the life she will choose to lead and where her loyalties lie. Mona Martenson plays Laila, with Peter Malberg, Harald Schwenzen and Henry Gleditsch as part of an excellent supporting cast.  Tryggve Larsson is a standout as Jampa, the doting Saami servant.

The story takes place in Finnmark a long, long time ago....
   'Finnmark' at first impression would seem to be a contraction of Finland and Denmark, but is the northernmost county in Norway.  The climate of Finnmark is varied; the coastal regions have the homogenizing influence of the sea and are more mild, while interior regions are very cold in winter and often hot in the summer.  Finnmark is part of the region known as Sapmi (Lapland), historically inhabited by the Sami.

Norwegians and Sami
Sapmi  (Wikipedia)
  The origins of the Sami people can be traced back to the end of the Holocene, when glaciers receded, providing more land for settlement in northern Europe.  The people who settled the area were known as Komsa, and the similarities between relics of their culture and Sami decoration shows the connection.
    Interestingly, a separation arose around the late 1600s that divided the Sami into 'sea Sami' - those that moved along the coast as fishers and hunters, and the 'mountain Sami', the interior-dwelling herders and trappers who followed the migration of the reindeer, as shown in the film. The mountain Sami often viewed the sea-Sami as outsiders - dakka (possibly translated as daro in the film) was their term for all outsiders, including Norwegians.  Norwegians, of North Germanic ancestry, first began to come into the area from the south around 350 AD, but more obvious settlement of the outer coasts did not occur until around the 1300s.

   Economic development in the late 1800s put pressure on the Sami culture, as the Norwegian culture emerged dominant and strove to make itself the sole culture of Norway.  Interestingly (again!  this movie is really great), the Sami culture was under highest pressure at the time during which Laila was made (1900-1940), yet the movie ultimately presents a kind view of both cultures.  Land ownership without a Norwegian name registered was forbidden, and certain race-research practices were put in to place at the expense of the Sami.  The Sami rarely rebelled - likely due to the influence of the version of Lutheran Christianity many had converted to - but the small town of Kautokeino, where they take Laila to be baptized, was at one time the site of an uprising against Norwegian authorities.  In recent years, the Sami have been accepted by Scandinavian governments and given certain rights and protections for their culture.

Saami Culture
   The basic unit of Sami culture was the siida, a group of several families, which would move from place to place to follow the best locations for certain resources at specific times of the year (sea-Sami) or to follow the reindeer (mountain-Sami).  As nomads, their homes were portable, hide-covered tents, which could be packed and pulled in sleds by domesticated reindeer. 

   Prior to the influence of Christianity (the sea-Sami were first converted to Christianity in the 1500s), Saami were animists, believing in spirits that inhabited all parts of the natural world, and their religion was 'more accurately described as an integral way of life'.  Analysis of American Sioux and Sami beliefs has shown remarkable parallels, in that both cultures believed in the sacredness of nature, both identified as sacred sites areas that appeared special (spectacular rock formations, caverns, lakesides), both religions personified natural events (e.g. thunder) and emphasized the interconnectedness of nature.  Over time, the Sami were brought into closer conformity with their Norwegian neighbors' religion through the efforts of missionaries and the legal dictates of the ruling culture.  By the time Laila was set, it was assumed that both cultures shared the same religious practices, as evidenced by both families' intent to bring the infant to the visiting priest to have her baptized.
   Part of what was fascinating to me about this movie was the glimpse at the traditional costume, in what appears to be a very accurate portrayal. While most of the costumes worn in the film and those worn today are made of wool and other more-lightweight textiles, in the further past most items would have been constructed from animal hides.  The gakhti, or long coat, was the primary item of costume for both men and women.  I had never realized how much influence Sami culture had on Norwegian design and, by extension, on ski culture.  The hats worn by the Sami that resemble jester hats that had a trendy moment a few years ago, and nordic skiing also retained the influence of traditional design, at least until spandex took over. In regards to the different hats worn in the movie, Wikipedia states that Sami 'hats vary by gender, season, and region' and are made of wool, fur or leather.
   Famous Sami include Renee Zellweger, who has Sami ancestry from her Norwegian mother.

Bit of a Spoiler!
  So don't read any further if you're interested in watching the movie without pre-knowledge...  The bubonic plague that claims the lives of Laila's parents was a part of the Sami history.  When the plague struck Europe in the mid-1300s, the sea-Sami, being much more connected to the rest of Europe via trade routes and shipping, suffered greatly.  The 'mountain Sami' also did not typically trade in the vector items of the plague-carrying flea, such as wool, wheat and rye and were relatively safe (as is used in a plot point in Laila).  So many farms were decimated by the plague that the land was still being re-populated in the 1800s.

Links and Sources:
Laila, TCM
A great source:  Sami culture, University of Texas
Lapland:  Sapmi or north Fennoscandia, Wikipedia
Visit Finnmark, Innovation Norway
Finnmark, Wikipedia
Travel to Lapland, Regional Council of Lapland 
Sami revolt..., Wikipedia
Renee Zellweger, IMDB
Joni Mitchell and other famous Sami, Rauna Kuokkanen 
Laila DVD release, Flicker Alley   I don't like this blog to be too much of an advertisement for any one thing, but if you want to catch this movie on DVD, it will be released this year in mid-May.

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