IC Lecture: Pathfinder and the Indigenous Gaze

In an International Cinema lecture Chip Oscarson discussed the film Pathfinder and its postcolonial approach to preserving the cultural identity of the Sámi people.  

1280px-Nordic_Sami_people_Lavvu_1900-1920PROVO, Utah (Apr. 5, 2016)—Since the beginning of cinema, filmmakers portraying colonized groups have run the risk of inflicting the same kind of colonial violence as colonizers.  For Nils Gaup, the writer and director of the first-ever Sámi film, Pathfinder, the task proved no less daunting – though he himself was a native Sámi.

The Sámi are a group of some 130,000 individuals who practice a nomadic lifestyle in the Arctic area known as Sápmi, a geographical region that includes parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  They are the only indigenous group left in Europe today.

According to Chip Oscarson, associate professor of Scandinavian studies and comparative arts and letters, for Gaup’s effort to reassert Sámi identity through film to be successful, he was challenged to both give Westerners something they could relate to in the film as well as provide symbols for the Sámi culture to rally around.

Overall, Oscarson explained that the film’s goal is a postcolonial one, with the intent to portray the inherent right of colonized cultures to exist and express themselves. To contextualize the film, Oscarson briefly discussed the rich cultural history of the Sámi and how this culture is working to maintain its heritage and resist the erasure of assimilation. 

Oscarson said that though there has always been conflict between the Sámi culture and other Scandinavian cultures, the real problem began in the 1700s and 1800s when systematic efforts were put in place to make the Sámi conform to Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish culture. 

“This was done by systematic working against their language,” Oscarson explained. “They weren’t allowed to speak their language, and there was no talk of having their language taught in their schools.”

He added, “Their traditional handicrafts and art were also banned and made illegal. They wanted to Christianize them, to make them modern Europeans, to work out what they saw as these bad habits of ‘laziness.’” 

By the 1960s and ’70s, it appeared as if this erasure of Sámi identity and culture might actually succeed, as there was relatively little pushback from the Sámi culture itself. For postcolonial scholars, the greatest fear was perhaps the loss of the colonized culture’s language.

“Whenever you start getting rid of language, you start getting rid of a worldview – a way of seeing the world,” Oscarson said. He added that this is demonstrated in a second-language speaker’s inability to translate certain words from one language to another. What is lost in translation gives a sense of “how important language is for encapsulating a worldview.”

Oscarson explained that in terms of representation, it is vital to approach the subject without imposing a colonial worldview – which becomes especially difficult when such the project of representation requires a large monetary investment, like filmmaking.

“The colonial view typically shows the non-Western world as being empty, virgin space. You can probably imagine different films you’ve seen, or the way that the American West is represented in Western,” said Oscarson.

Oscarson added that the inhabitants these films represent also exist anterior to history. It appears as though nothing took place historically before white people settled a particular landscape.

“One thing you should watch for is how often we look at people looking in this film,” Oscarson said. “And when you begin watching this film, it’s definitely made with outsiders in mind.”

Though the film perhaps caters to the outsider in some instances, Gaup is also not afraid to throw the viewer into a disorienting cultural situation without giving all of the details for cultural contextualization. 

Oscarson added that in many ways Nils Gaup’s project reflects the plight of the film’s main character. In the film, a young Sámi man must assist an invading tribe in order to have a chance of saving his people.

“Think of this as standing in for what Nils Gaup is doing in the film,” Oscarson said. “He walks this fine line between both making something that will have some kind of appeal while expressing his unique cultural identity, and by doing it in a way that some people within his community are going to accuse him of selling out, of doing something that’s too Western or of trying to capitalize on Sáminess for his own benefit.”

Oscarson concluded, “The attempt of the film is to rally Sámi identity, to give them these symbols and a sense of community that is unique from other Scandinavian identities. It’s ended up being one of the really important works of art that has done this.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.