“I always knew I had a special grandmother. Her story was interesting for a filmmaker…but I was always thinking about how I could make it.”
Dressed in traditional Sami clothing, Katja Gauriloff is at Hot Docs for the world premiere of Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest. A kind of magical-realist documentary, Kaisa is a portrait of her grandmother, “a celebrated storyteller and seer” among Finland’s indigenous Skolt Sami people. Gauriloff adopts the point of view of a Swiss writer, Robert Crottet, who visited and befriended her grandmother, interweaving his letters and journals, archival footage and photography, from the 1930s to the ‘70s. Significantly, Crottet’s archives include documentation on the traumatic upheaval of WW2, when Kaisa and her people were forced to relocate and abandon their reindeer-herding way of life.
Gauriloff lives in Rovaniemi, the small village near the Arctic Circle where she grew up, and recently returned. (Funnily, the town is featured in another film at Hot Docs: Christy Garland’s Cheer Up, about “the worst cheerleading team in Finland.”) Telling the story of her own family, she made the choice to keep herself out of the film—-taking a more abstract approach.
“This topic is really personal for me: my mother and my family, ” she says. “To make the film I had to take a step away from it. And take the point of view of a foreigner.” Mixing archives with animated sequences, audio recordings, and evocative sound design, the result is a lyrical portrait that almost feels more like a fairytale than history. Near the end of his long friendship with Kaisa, Crottet writes: “Kaisa, it’s not our fault that in your land, dream and reality are so closely bonded—that they are hard to tell apart.”
Using a foreigner’s voice as the film’s central thread, was the Sami filmmaker critical of his perspective? “Of course, everything he wrote was very romantic,” she says. “But I chose to film it that way. I mixed fantasy, poetry, legends.” For example, she says, the film contains an anecdote where Kaisa confronts Stalin himself. “Did that really happen? Maybe it didn’t happen, but I wanted to leave it because it fits in the story, in this world.”
In reality, she says, “It wasn’t a romantic time. It was very harsh life for them, after the war. We were all traumatized at that time. Because of what happened after the war, my generation was left out of our culture, because they didn’t teach it to us. Everybody knows how hard it was.” But three years ago, when she finally accessed the “treasure trove” of archival footage collected by Crottet, she says she was taken by surprise.
“With everything I know about what happened, to see the happiness in people’s faces…they enjoyed life. That was the first thing that came out of the material. I wanted to make something beautiful, that captured that feeling.” The film does explore more shadowy places, however, including an animated sequence, recounting a dark legend about the Northern Lights. Gauriloff created a strange and beautiful illustration of a traditional fable, working with a Russian artist, which was challenging, “having no language in common!”
Gauriloff has made several films; her most recent, Canned Dreams, premiered at Berlinale in 2012. Her next project, she says, will be a narrative feature: “LGBT fiction! I am co-writing, based on a Finnish novel I found. The story is like me, 20 years ago,” she laughs. ”Young girl goes to big city, to find new exciting life. She falls in love with girl who is very mysterious and dark. Little by little she starts to find out more about her. Eventually, it becomes a power triangle.”
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.