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April 06, 2015

The Skábmagovat Film Festival: Indigenous Film above the Arctic Circle

Yoik singer, opening night
A yoik singer opens the Skábmagovat Film Festival. January 2015, Inari, Finland.

As a film programmer you become a seasoned festival-goer, immersed in the cultural landscape of film, new media, and the relationships you build with other filmmakers and film institutions around the world. The Film and Video Center of the National Museum of American Indian thrives on building those relationships, and my experiences with the Skábmagovat Film Festival are some of those unique cultural exchanges.

The village of Inari
The village of Inari, Finland, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival is presented in Inari, Finland, a small village in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle. The region is known for its sub-zero temperatures during the winter, spectacular Northern Lights, reindeer herding, and community of Sámi, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. The Sámi reside in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia and are the only indigenous people officially recognized in the European Union. They continue to preserve their language and culture in order to better provide for the livelihood of future generations.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th anniversary in January, is one of the premiere international Indigenous film festivals in the world. Each year the festival spotlights films from all indigenous regions, including First Nations, American Indians, Aboriginal Australia, Maori, and many others. This year the festival’s focus was on Latin America, and featured films came from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. I was honored to be asked by Skábmagovat executive director Jorma Lehtola (Sámi) to help curate the Latin American indigenous section and serve as an invited speaker at this year’s film festival seminar.

Inari lake troutAs an invited delegate I had the pleasure of eating some traditional dishes, like reindeer and trout with a side of lingonberries, even eating a meal in a Sámi lavvu, a traditional tent or tipi. With other delegates, I had an opportunity to explore the wilderness by visiting a Sámi reindeer farm. Our reindeer adventure included a snowmobile journey over a frozen lake, sitting and observing wild reindeer, drinking coffee brewed over an open fire, and learning about the Sámi people’s nomadic traditions.

In the lavvu

The reindeer farm 

Coffee over an open fire
From top right to bottom: Inari lake trout with lignonberries and herbs, on china decorated with an antler motif. In the lavvu. The reindeer farm. Coffee brewed on an open fire.

I also explored the Sámi Museum Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi people, which offers beautiful exhibitions and displays on Sámi history and culture and serves as an official venue for the film festival.

The most eye-opening experience was being in the Northern Lights Theatre, an open-air theater made completely of snow. Festival hosts lent me a snowsuit and boots, and I sat outside alongside other visitors to listen to festival introductions in Finnish, Sámi, and English and watch films under the moon and stars.

Sámi Museum Siida

Serious film lovers in the Northern Lights Theatre

%22My Legacy%22 on the ice screen at the Northern Lights Theatre
Top: An exhibition gallery at the Sámi Museum Siida, the Finnish national museum of the Sámi people. Photo courtesy of Siida. Middle: The audience seated on snow risers in the Northern Lights Theatre. Photo by Jeanette Paillán. Bottom: The film My Legacy on the big screen at the Northern Lights. 

Director Jeanette Paillan (left) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farmThe film festival seminar was held in Solju, the Parliament Hall in the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. During my presentation, I discussed museum initiatives for film and video, ongoing film programs like Native Cinema Showcase, and a step-by-step tutorial on navigating the Film and Media Catalog on the museum’s website. I also listened to some inspiring stories from invited delegates, including Mapuche director Jeanette Paillán, the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación), Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, and Yakutian director Michail Lukachevskyi, on film techniques and resources available in indigenous communities

Other highlights? Watching a new shorts film collective made by young Sámi filmmakers and funded by the International Sámi Film Institute’s Sámi Film Lab, as well as attending the festival’s concerts, which featured performers from various musical genres, including rap, bluegrass and yoik, a traditional Sámi form of song. 

Sámi Film Collective in Sajos

Upper: Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche), the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farm. Lower: Young filmmakers supported by the Sámi Film Lab discuss their work.


The Skábmagovat Film Festival was an unbelievable experience for me both as a visitor and as a film enthusiast. The Sámi people were so gracious and kind as hosts that I felt like I was with family. By bringing people from all different backgrounds together in one small village in Finland, the festival gives voice to the power of how film to strengthen dialogue across on all indigenous communities. To say my journey was surreal is an understatement. It’s an experience that will remain with me forever.

—Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Cynthia Benitez is the Film and Video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She is currently seeking her M.S. in Media Studies at Brooklyn College. 

Photographs not credited above are by Cynthia Benitez, NMAI


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