Homecoming (Máhccan) is a film that superbly engages its audience and allows us to connect with the struggles that people like the Sámi community endure in getting their cultural property back. Suvi West and Anssi Kömi have made a moving and fascinating documentary.
As museums worldwide are increasingly pressured to return cultural property, co-directors Suvi West and Anssi Kömi share a personal and insightful story about the return of Sámi artefacts — long held in a museum — to their homeland.
When you gaze at items in a museum, do you ever think about the history, the stories of those items from other cultures? Or do you just read the panel, have a look, and move on? In Suvi West and Anssi Kömi’s documentary Homecoming, you will look at those much differently next time you visit a museum.
We open Homecoming with West looking around the storage space of Sámi properties just before their return to Savvi (the Sámi museum); her glee radiates through the screen. She can’t keep her smile off her face as she looks at these items, thinking of the history and beauty of the items. There are tears in the eyes, but as Eero (the head of conservation at the museum) notes, there is so much happiness and power in the items, explicitly because he is showing these to West.
By giving us these moments, we can immediately connect with our guides on this journey and from that moment, Homecoming has you. You want to know everything about the situation with the Sámi people and their battle to get these items back to their property place, home. Not just limiting the scope of Homecoming to the quest for the reparation of Sámi artefacts, West and Kömi make it both a personal journey for the Sámi people and one for any indigenous community trying to get what belongs to them back into their control.
When we see these items, beautifully displayed by the documentary under a spotlight, we also feel their power. Even just a child’s dress evokes emotion from you. Instead of thinking of it as an item, you think of the person who wore it, their story. In the film, we hear someone give this wonderfully detailed picture of a pair of boots, just boots, and how the reindeer’s fur that adorns them had to have been killed in a specific month due to the texture of the fur. How some details within the boots are different from usual. The person who owned those boots travelled to other communities. As such, instead of getting a postcard like we do now, they had patches or stitching included in the heel.
It is fascinating; however, that moment is punctuated with the line, “It is a shame that the collector was more interested in the item than the story”. Only the people from this community can tell you the history of that item, not just the notes, but the whole history and meaning of every aspect of that item. This is what people like the Sámi communities are telling us. Those not from their community cannot begin to know the history and meaning of something as simple as a pair of boots.
Homecoming makes the point very clear: indigenous people do not just want to have their property back to keep them and make a profit displaying them. They want them returned so they can educate their children and their children’s children on the history of their people. Some of these items are only interpretable via the Sámi people themselves. Hence, removing that middleman from explaining their history is vital to keeping their culture alive for future generations.
An example is shown in something as simple as Skolt fur boots, which are not only labelled as female fur boots but to a specific person, who can be traced back to people living now with ease. There are not so much artefacts as they are family heirlooms. Simple things like this that we take for granted when visiting a museum strike you in Homecoming.
At times, we are presented with the slight ignorance of museum curators. They bring out boxes and artefacts that West clearly knows are Sámi but not her community within Sámi. As such, she should not see what is contained inside out of respect for that other community. While the museum curators mean well, they are not as knowledgeable about the sacred aspects of the indigenous communities. The importance of permission is high in these communities. If anything, it shows how some cultures take this for granted and do what they want despite how that may make another culture feel.
These moments make Homecoming such an eye-opening experience, becoming almost an educational experience for those not from these communities. The film touches upon other more shocking moments, but they are best left for you to experience on your own; needless to say, they are deeply uneasy scenes that show how bereft of humanity some scientists were.
As we see West tear up repeatedly, you feel your own begin to form; when she’s trying on some of the clothes, she is informed some of her ancestor’s items are in Gothenburg. She is so vulnerable in the film that it soon becomes a poignantly raw viewing experience. This comes to the fore when we see some museum curators less than positive about her presence. While some, like previously mentioned, see the items in a completely new light because West is there holding them, the spirituality of the essence of the thing forges a fantastic connection between people like West and her ancestors.
Cultural artefacts should predominantly be with the communities they emanate from. Can such things be loaned out to these national museums? Sure, but no more than that. While focussing on the issue that the Sámi people have with their stolen artefacts, Homecoming resonates with all countries and communities that have felt this struggle.
It is an excellent documentary that pulls at your heart and has you angry about the situation but hopeful that the tide is turning and these properties will be returned.
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