When stones can speak
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
There may be nothing more inanimate than a stone. Hard rocks are not thought of as having life or souls. But in the documentary short Koppmoll, they tell a story. Thirty minutes in length, this 2020 release was directed by Charles M. Pepiton, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and written by Damon Falke, an American who has lived in northern Norway with his family for eight years.
If you don’t understand the word koppmoll and can’t find it in a Norwegian dictionary, you are not alone. It is a relatively rare dialect word for a small round stone—rullesten in Norwegian Bokmål—literally a rolling stone, found in and around Kjøllefjord, a fishing village in the northernmost part of Norway. The stones are found in all sizes and colors in this unique landscape and not commonly found in other parts of Norway.
In the opening moments of the film, the sounds of waves washing up the stones on the shore are heard behind a haunting song, created by New York-based folklorist and musician Camilla Ammirati especially for the film. It sets a melancholic, contemplative tone for the story that will unfold. Throughout, music is an important component to the story, as traditional instruments are used to create various moods.
The camera then zooms in on the hands of the men picking up the stones on the beach. Visually, the stones figure prominently throughout Koppmoll. They are not only characteristic of the landscape and local culture but also function on a metaphoric level. There in northern Norway, stones are the building material of the people’s homes, core to their survival. You can create something with stones, but you cannot destroy them; they will endure for generations over time. The people even use the stones to decorate their homes and to sell to tourists.
Historically, the stones have always played in important role in the life of the region. If you travel there, you will see stone cairns scattered around the landscape. With stones piled up on each other, they were a collaborative way of marking a path and sharing information. And in the same way, in Koppmoll, stories from different individuals are stacked on top of each other to create the same sort of pile, a collaborative pile of memory.
Above all, Koppmoll is a film about memory and place. Tore Walde returns to his grandfather’s home in the tiny settlement Skjøtningberg “where his heart is.” The question becomes how we are shaped by the place we come from and where our ancestors lived and what can be learned from these places. In Koppmoll, the empty desolate beauty of the stony landscape with driftwood on the beaches set a backdrop for a certain kind of people, who we come to know in the course of the film.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Pepiton and Falke in a Zoom session to find out what inspired them to make a film about such a remote location. At the time, they were both in Norway on tour with the film.
We began by talking about what was going on in the world around us in early days of the war in Ukraine—not unrelated to the film. The memories that surface in Koppmoll are those of the devastation of World War II, when the Germans engaged in a scorched-earth policy, leaving little behind them but the stones. But the people of northern Norway were somehow able to beat back the Germans, as they hid in caves or on tops of mountains. They survived the harsh wintertime and rebuilt their lives.
The people of the far north endured unspeakable hardships. For the filmmakers, there are stories that should not be forgotten. They look at history through a local, personal lens, creating a genre, which, in their own words “negotiates the border between documenting and storytelling.”
Pepiton further explained: “The importance of this whole film and a lot of the work that Damon and I do together is about trying to tell the stories of world history through individual personal history. It’s a personalized history … And it’s really the only way we can understand these giant events like World War II. We can only really feel them, I think, when it gets to the personal level. You start talking about so many millions of people impacted; 80,000 people displaced from Finnmark alone. Your brain has a hard time understanding that but understands when Aksel Jensen at the end of the film begins telling us about his mother hiding behind a rock.”
But today, there is a danger of the memories of the war begin forgotten. Damon talked about two factors in respect to this. It is typical for the generation that went to war not to speak much about it with their own children. More often, they will talk to the next generation that has more distance to the traumatic effects of the war. But the memories can fade, or in many cases, it may simply be too late. Damon sees this is happening northern Norway, and above all, he and Charlie see the importance of capturing this history now.
Fortunately, young researchers in Norway, like Kristine Fostervold featured in the documentary, and others like Pepiton and Falke are capturing oral histories, and families are beginning to record their own memories. Jensen talks about writing his stories down for his family in what is emerging as type of “bible” chronicle of his experience of the war. It is a slow, quiet process of writing everything down in clear, simple, authentic words, “ettertanker,” afterthoughts about all that happened. This all takes place in contrast to a world in which young people are being anesthetized to violence by action films and video games. But when bestefar tells a story, it is something real, something to learn from.
But in the end, Koppmoll is about much more than one remote place in northern Norway. When you see the film, you begin to ponder your relationship to your own surroundings, to think about where your parents and grandparents came from and how they experienced the world around them. The film is narrated by its writer, Falke, and you gain his perspective on his own past and how it relates to his experience of making the film. In our interview, Falke shared how east Texas, where he grew up, was a different landscape than northern Norway, but the two places are isolated. Coming to the landscape of northern Norway with its solitude and silence, he began to contemplate on how he was nourished by the landscape of his own childhood, the building block stones of his own life.
“And so, I go to northern Norway, the far north, in fact, the actual geographical end of Norway. And I have opportunity to consider what has nourished me … Now I’m forced to think about this …” he said.
Falke’s prose is very personal and down to earth, yet poetic, a very strong aspect of the film. There is also the outstanding cinematography by Wes Kline, along with Ammirati’s music, that make the film so moving. Director Pepiton, who co-produced the film with Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton deserves much credit for pulling it all together.
Koppmoll has been seen in venues around northern Norway, and this past winter, it was shown at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. It is the goal of the filmmakers to get the film out to as many audiences as possible, and there are opportunities to arrange for screenings and discussions with them. Email email@example.com to learn more and schedule a screening.
All images courtesy of Charles M. Pepiton and Damon Falke.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.