Worldwide recognition for Arctic Indigenous Films: Interview with Liisa Holmberg and Anne Lajla Utsi

In the 2019 issue of Shared Voices, Liisa Holmberg presented the Fund’s plans and aspirations. Now, four years since its creation, Anne Lajla Utsi and Liisa Holmberg talk about the development and achievements of AIFF.

“During these years, we have had many successes,” states Liisa. “What we started doing with AIFF is what we would do if we had millions and billions. We don't have those yet, but we have a clear vision.” The first film of the Arctic Chills anthology, a horror story by Marc Fussing Rosbach, premiered in Nuuk this spring. The shooting for the second of the five films in the series has also started. The original plan was to start shooting one of the Arctic Chills films in Nunavut in January 2022, but they are still struggling with the consequences and challenges of the pandemic. 2020 was a hard year for AIFF due to COVID which has a great impact on rural communities. “We had everything in place, but we had to postpone most activities to this year,” comments Liisa. 

Before the pandemic, ISFI organized a digital talent hub in Inari where six virtual reality (VR) films were produced. As part of their 360-degree film project “ÁRRAN 360°”, a workshop was also held in Oslo in December 2021. The films from this project will premiere in June at the Venice Biennale in a specially built lávvu, a traditional Sámi tent. According to Liisa, it is very interesting to make high-technology films and show them in a traditional setting. It becomes an immersive experience for the Biennale visitors. “We are so thrilled to be able to showcase our work in Venice; it's a huge deal for us.” 

Another big event is planned for this year's Cannes Film Festival. “We have been knocking on their door so many times,” notes Liisa. “Now they are calling us and saying ‘we want you to come!’” The AIFF network has clearly facilitated this process and put Arctic indigenous films in the international spotlight. 

Offering Mentorship and Training for Indigenous Creators

AIFF also offers mentoring and training opportunities to Arctic Indigenous creators. In 2021, Icelandic actor and filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur became ambassador for the Fund along with Greenlandic actress and singer Nukâka Coster-Waldau and her husband, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. As AIFF ambassadors, they offer to read, give advice, co-produce, and generally support Indigenous creators. At the same time, their ambassadorship helps promote and create attention for the Fund and Arctic Indigenous filmmaking through their connections in the international film business. “They have already done a lot for us,” says Anne Lajla, “for example getting us in touch with Netflix. This is of course very exciting.” 

AIFF is also about creating connections like these and creating ways to a wider film market. Anne-Lajla explains that the main goal of the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund is to be able to provide funding to support the bigger productions, feature films and series, as well as short films and co-productions. More funding is necessary, because it is expensive to make these kinds of productions. “But the most valuable resource for us is the people. The money comes second.'' The people involved with AIFF are working hard to connect communities, and the results are evident.  

The educational component is also very important to AIFF. “With York University in Canada, we are planning to create an Indigenous film education degree, from bachelor to PhD level,” says Liisa. Anne Lajla adds that ISFI will start a one-year film course in autumn 2022 on Indigenous storytelling, screenwriting and production at the Sámi University of Applied Sciences. “The course is in English, so we welcome other Indigenous areas, Indigenous people, to apply and join. That's also part of the achievements of our UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Indigenous Film.”

“Since the opening of the International Sámi Film Institute in 2009, we have built a new generation of Sámi filmmakers,” Anne Lajla continues. “At the same time, we focus very much on capacity building and training.” In 2013, Sámi University College held a film production training. Shortly after, a short film series, Seven Sami Stories, was released and had more than 200 screenings all over the world. These initiatives set a foundation for Sámi filmmakers to move into bigger productions. “If we are going to build a sustainable and innovative Sámi film industry and be globally visible, we need to get our filmmakers into the bigger productions. That's where you can create the jobs,” explains Anne Lajla. “That's where you can create the companies, and where you are really building the industry.” In addition, ISFI is cooperating with European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), organizing production training programs for Sámi film producers starting with recruitment of producers this year. “In order to have ownership of our own stories, that's where we need to focus,” adds Anne Lajla. “We need our own producers, because they are the ones who will have the rights to the films and can create value from the stories. That is crucial.”

Funding as a Tool to Ensure Indigenous Ownership

ISFI has recently received more consistent financial support to extend their budget for producing films. Anne Lajla believes that they need their own independence and sovereignty when it comes to deciding which films they and the Sámi society itself want. Both Liisa and Anne Lajla foresee a future where Indigenous film institutes are not dependent on the national film institutions. “Making films is very expensive,” comments Anne Lajla. “The positive thing is that it employs a lot of people. There's a lot of work locally. That's the exciting thing about the film industry: you can build it up wherever you want.” Currently everything is in place for starting the biggest film productions that Sápmi has ever hosted as well as a TV series. “A lot of film people are here,” says Liisa while showing the snowy landscape outside of her office window. “It's really exciting.”

In Greenland, there are also two big productions coming up. “The challenge for Greenland is that they have so little funding,” Anne Lajla points out. “They are perhaps where we were ten years ago”. This is one of the reasons the work of AIFF is important as it provides substantial funding for productions that would otherwise lack in budget. Canada has maybe the most progressive approach related to funding when it comes to supporting Indigenous filmmakers, while in Alaska and Russia the funding is minimal if non-existent. “Here in Sápmi we have a little hope,” highlights Liisa. “We have our network and it’s working.” In the last two years, there has been a big change internationally when it comes to diversity, inclusion and representation. This creates exciting opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers all around the world. There is a real hunger for other kinds of stories, not just mainstream western narratives.

Five Years from Now

In five years, both Liisa and Anne Lajla hope to have the funding they need in Sápmi that would allow them to have a few bigger productions every year. That would create the basis for continuity for Sámi filmmakers, as they cannot make a living out of one production every five or ten years. “I think we are heading there; we can see the goal already,” says Anne Lajla. Ideally, the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund would also be running smoothly with solid funding five years from now. The aim is to support the Arctic Indigenous filmmakers with concrete actions, including financial support. 

The whole world's attention is pointed to the Arctic due to climate change issues. “This is our homeland, so we really need to have a strong voice in this development,” specifies Anne Lajla. Film is a powerful medium to reach out to a bigger international audience. It also creates jobs and a future for the younger generations of Arctic Indigenous peoples. “In five years it's normal,” concludes Liisa with a big smile, “it's normal that Indigenous peoples are making their own films, with their own funding, on their own terms.”

Anne Lajla Utsi belongs to the Sámi people and is based in the Sámi village Kautokeino in Norway above the Arctic Circle, where she has served as managing director for the International Sámi Film Institute (ISFI) since 2009. She is one of the founders of the Institute and has a background as a documentary film director. Through ISFI, Utsi has guided a new generation of Sámi filmmakers, and the production of Sámi films has increased by 46 % in this period with 77 % women directors. 

Liisa Holmberg works as film commissioner at the International Sámi Film Institute (ISFI). She is a Sámi film maker who originally comes from the Finnish side of Sámiland. Since 1994, she has worked in the film business as a producer, production manager and film consultant. The main part of her work is to support Sámi and other Indigenous film makers in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Sápmi and Russia through the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund (AIFF).

By Francesca Stoppani, Intern, UArctic International Secretariat.

[Originally published in the UArctic Shared Voices Magazine 2022. Read all articles here]