"They're some kind of Santa's helper folk."

'The Beckhams of Utsjoki' opens the door to modern day Saami life.

Out of a total of 75 000 indigenous Saami in the world, around 9000 live in Finland. Yet, what do we really know about them? Finnish children still learn more in school about Native Americans than they do about Finland's own indigenous inhabitants.

The documentary film 'The Beckhams of Utsjoki' is an intimate and honest depiction of modern day Saami people recounted through the experiences of three generations. The documentary was filmed in Utsjoki, the northern-most municipality of Finland and the European Union. The protagonists are: reindeer herder and respected salmon-rower Niila Laiti, Saami cultural figurehead Annukka Hirvasvuopio-Laiti, skilful wielder of Saami cultural traditions and Niila's mother, Kirsti Laiti, as well as Annukka and Niila's boys, Mihkku and Áilu. The family's life is observed out in the reindeer pens, in the salmon waters, at christenings, at market and at old and new living quarters for a total of almost three years. In addition to portraying the everyday and festive occasions of Saami life, the film also conveys the viewer through the most magnificent wilderness regions of Upper Lapland. The viewer is taken from the Kevo canyon to the salmon spawning rapids, the fiery colours of the autumn 'ruska' forests, the ice floes of the spring and the aurora borealis flashing across the northern skies.
"Being Saami... it's me. I know where I am, where I belong. Deep within it means everything. But it doesn't show in everyday life, apart from that the language and livelihoods are the traditional ones," is how Niila, 38, sums up his own relationship to being Saami.
"Even people who've been coming to so-called Lapland for years don't necessarily know anything about the Saami. They have the image of it created by the tourist centres", says Annukka, 36, and continues to say that in the tourist business ordinary Finns wear fake "made in Hong Kong" Lappish costumes as Saami exoticism. Things are done in the name of Saami which have nothing to do with genuine Saami culture.
Niila is one of the Teno River's most well-known salmon-rowers. He knows the best catch areas, which is why he is a much sought after rower among salmon tourists. A few years ago, a salmon fisherman from the south paid for Niila to go on a round the world trip after Niila's salmon boats had caught the man an over 20 kilo salmon. Nevertheless, not all of the people Niila rows are as pleasant acquaintances, as some still behave as though the Saami are just "Santa's helper folk".
Niila's mother Kirsti Laiti is an 82-year-old super granny. She lives alone, tends the reindeer and still fashions fur moccasins out of reindeer hide. Her closest neighbour is five kilometres away, but this does not perturb Kirsti: "I've never been afraid" she says.
Kirsti can well recall the old times and is skilful at Saami handicrafts. She still goes net fishing and she ponders on the changing world. "If you start to comment on, or to give advice to, the young today then the answer would be: "Rubbish, that old crone is so old-fashioned. She doesn't have a clue!"
It's important to Annukka that Niila's mother has accepted her into the family: "I'm truly no house proud tidying type of person... I'd much rather drink coffee and eat chocolates than clean! And I don't know how to do handicrafts, even though every Saami woman should know how. I'm really bad at that sort thing!"
Reindeer husbandry is the most important Saami livelihood and - along with the language, music and handicrafts tradition - the most important cornerstone of Saami culture. The documentary shows at close quarters the intensity of the reindeer separation process, even though Niila is quick to underscore that a reindeer herder's work is much more than just the tugging of reindeer by the antlers and the picking out of animals for slaughter. "The reindeer are my capital. You have to care for the capital with kids gloves. The better my reindeer are cared for, the better I'm cared for."
Reindeer husbandry is facing great challenges today. The reindeer stocks have to be reduced, yet this reduction does not seem to be carried out uniformly. The Reindeer Herders' Associations are at odds with each other and the Reindeer Husbandry Act is so much behind the times that there is a threat to the future of the entire livelihood. "The law was made for people who couldn't read or write", says Niila, and he goes on to note that the topic is of little interest to legislators: "They just think it's a few reindeer herders bickering among themselves, so they're not bothered about it."
Niila not only rows tourists out to the salmon waters, he also fishes for salmon himself. However, he doesn't fish with the rod; he uses the traditional Saami method of dragnet fishing, or 'kulkutus'. Dragnet fishing is a disappearing Saami tradition. "The old experts are getting on in years and no new generation has come to take their place. I'm among the youngest of us" says Niila. Along with his 'kulkutus' buddy, Niila ponders on peoples' being out of touch with nature: "One man asked me if the Teno flows in the same direction every year." "Some even wonder, as it flows northwards, how it can flow upwards."
Culture can only live if it is able to change. Niila and Annukka are both cultural reformers; however making money from the cheapening of Saami culture aggravates them deeply:
"To me the kind of Saami culture that hasn't been sold cheaply for use by the tourism trade is the kind that's good and respectable... One should be what one is" Niila maintains. He also says that he wants to teach the old fishing and reindeer herding ways to his sons. However, he will not force his sons to become reindeer herders or salmon-rowers: "They're allowed to make their own choices as to their own professions. Mihkku's last choice was to be a rock musician!"
During the course of the filming of the documentary Annukka became pregnant and gives birth to a son, who - like his older brother Mihkku - is given a traditional Saami name: Áilu. The christening water is fetched from a spring situated on a fell top. Before the birth, Annukka is concerned about the long, over 500 kilometres, trip to the hospital: "We just have to hope all goes well and that we make it to the hospital, as I'm not too keen on an ambulance delivery, especially if it happens to be really cold and snowy."
Niila and Annukka are strong and visible characters, which is not necessarily easy when living in a small community. People talk and sometimes gossip can travel as far as Helsinki. Annukka mentions how a friend in Helsinki described the Laiti family's position in the small community: "...my friend said to me it was because we were like the Victoria and David Beckham of Utsjoki, whose lives are observed all the time."
During the course of the documentary, the Laiti family moves to a house that Niila himself has built. However, the work does not end once the house is completed: the hammer is exchanged for diaper duty. Niila is a proud father and does not hide it, nor is he shy about is opinions: "There is a generation gap. It's such a short time ago that some people in Utsjoki didn't have phones, televisions or electricity. The biggest challenge is to get along together. If a small community starts to quarrel among themselves then it will destroy itself. One should be able to direct one's resources in such a way that they work together against outside pressures."