"Pathfinder," which is playing at the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, is a starkly beautiful retelling of a 1,000-year-old Lapp coming-of-age saga set above the Arctic Circle. The film won a 1988 Oscar nomination for writer-director Nils Gaup and producer John M. Jacobsen and now it has brought the pair from Oslo to California, where they are completing Gaup's second film for Walt Disney Studios.
"Haaken Haakenson," which is the new film's Norwegian title (an alternative title is yet to be chosen), is a 19th-Century tale about the adventures of a shipwrecked boy, pirates and buried treasure, and it has provided some far-flung adventures for the cast and crew as well.
The film, which is being done in English and Norwegian versions, is finishing up in an industrial section of Glendale after stops in Fiji, Norway, Spain and Britain. This is large-scale filmmaking, with simulated shipwrecks (shot in Spain) and sets built to simulate 1852 London (shot in Liverpool). But what Gaup is most interested in on this early summer day is providing some historical perspective on his own people.
"I should explain that we Lapps call ourselves the Sami people," said the 35-year-old Gaup. " Lapp is slightly degrading. Our land includes parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway and the U.S.S.R. We were a nomadic people who didn't believe in borders. We moved from country to country, but we couldn't go back and forth between Norway and the U.S.S.R. until perestroika .
"We are one tribe with one language (but several dialects), one religion and the same culture. Basically, we are a hunting people. Our religion is similar to the American Indians': We believe that the Mother Earth is alive. To kill her is the same as killing a person.
"We are struggling to preserve our own culture from being assimilated by the stronger Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish cultures. We have also been repressed by these people. In 1980, there was a really big cultural fight. The Sami people protested the damming of a river--it was in a reindeer area and the river had salmon. But 600 policemen were sent up from Oslo, so we lost. I was arrested."
"The technocrats always win," Jacobsen interjected.
Gaup said it was this loss and ensuing depression that partly inspired him to write "Pathfinder."
"I was 9 or 10 when we got television," he said, "and TV took over the storyteller's place in our culture, which has an oral tradition. I wanted to make a big-scope film as a revenge on television."
It was at this point that Gaup, a former actor, and Jacobsen crossed paths: "I was making a film, and the cameraman asked me, 'Are you interested in another project? There's this Sami actor I know trying to raise money to make a film in the Sami language. I think it would be a very good film.' "
"My reaction was a big yawn," Jacobsen said. "I said, 'A Sami movie? You've got to be kidding!' My reaction was like that of other Norwegians toward the Sami people, who are looked down upon slightly, who are regarded with a kind of indirect discrimination.
"The cameraman said, 'Read it tonight or you won't read it at all,' " Jacobsen continued. "I was completely hooked by Page 3. Nils really could tell a story in images. As for doing the film in the Sami language, I believe that the biggest risk is to do the safest thing. People who sit down and say 'We're going to do something really commercial' always end up making crap!"
Jacobsen was coming off of a very successful film called "Hard Asphalt" and said he was in a position to take a chance. With a budget of $3 million--three times the cost of an average Norwegian film--and Gaup's plan to shoot in Sami, "Pathfinder" certainly was that.
"Nobody took us seriously," Jacobsen recalled. "They said, 'This must be a joke.' Nobody believed it would play south of this particular area where the Sami people live. But I thought we should make it an event. We would present it in 70-millimeter--a first for a Scandinavian film. Now no Norwegian can speak Sami, so it would be like seeing a film in Hungarian."
Occasionally, quality will out, and "Pathfinder" went on to become the most popular picture in Norwegian history and then got the kind of break little films need. Jacobsen said a representative from Carolco Pictures, the same company that made its international fortune in "Rambo" movies, spotted a poster for "Pathfinder" while on business in Oslo and, even though the film wasn't finished, made a deal to distribute it internationally.
In London, the film received rave reviews ("The kind you can frame," said Jacobsen) and played for six months. Audiences were fascinated by the cultural detail about a group of people mostly unknown even to the Norwegians, who partially smothered them.
"As a Norwegian, I've learned things about the Sami people I never knew," Jacobsen said. "I didn't know . . . that until the early 20th Century the Sami people weren't allowed to own land unless they converted to Protestantism and changed their Sami name to a good Norwegian one. And it wasn't until the late '50s or early '60s that the Sami people were allowed to speak their own language in school. It's not that Norwegians are bad people--they thought they were helping the Samis for their own good."
"How often do you see a Norwegian film?" asked Gaup. "Swedish, yes, but hardly ever do you see a Norwegian film in America. We were the first film from Norway to get an Oscar nomination in about 30 years. It was a great victory for Sami culture."
"Haaken Haakenson" is even more ambitious than "Pathfinder," and couldn't have been made with Norwegian money alone. So Gaup and Jacobsen again found a white knight in Carolco. The company showed "Pathfinder" to agents and studio people in Hollywood and helped them circulate Gaup's new script. Among the interested customers: Disney.
"Since it was a family-oriented adventure, to us Disney was the logical choice," Jacobsen said. "It was a Friday and they said, 'Let's talk on Monday.' So here we are."
Neither Gaup nor Jacobsen knows what he will do next or whether they will continue to work together. "But I would like to make another film in the Sami language," said Gaup firmly.