By Winnie Wang
The return of cultural items from national museums to their homelands is an ongoing process that does not simply end when the artifacts are handed over, or when the descendants of a community finally repossess ownership of their image. For co-director Suvi West, who follows the repatriation of Sámi objects to Sápmi—a nation comprising areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia—it begins with not only feelings of joy and relief, but profound pain, doubt and alienation. While some express comfort at the thought of narrative sovereignty and self-determination in the present, others are contending with the centuries of theft and violence in the form of grave plots that have been brutally excavated and plundered at the hand of academic research. But even as the National Museum of Finland restores artifacts to their rightful owners, there’s no sense of a neat resolution with collective concerns left to address and histories to trace. For one Sámi craftswoman, the objects are answers to questions that have yet to be identified.
Cautious of reproducing an ethnographic relationship that the documentary genre facilitates, West often reflects on whether she should view and share onscreen her encounters with certain sacred objects from outside of her region and solicits the opinion of co-director Anssi Kömi, who mostly operates behind the camera. Together, the two deliver an incisive film that emphasizes the importance of reuniting with one’s ancestors through artifacts and examines the right to access another’s culture, knowledge and belongings—even within the same nation. By foregrounding reactions and introspective conversations in place of explicit visual representations of the stolen items, West and Kömi successfully employ formal strategies to navigate the intricate challenge of protecting the sanctity of Sámi objects while sharing their significance. As a result of their sustained attention to positionality and spectatorship, Homecoming thwarts a voyeuristic gaze that exoticizes and flattens difference, commemorating the beginning of a long road to repatriation with a triumphant spirit that soars.