Amanda Kernell’s feature debut, Sami Blood, talks about the Sami people, an indigenous community of the North of Scandinavia, and their oppression at the hands of the Swedish people in the 1930’s. However, it is also a coming of age drama about a young girl who struggles to find any reason to carry on living as a member of her own community and eventually turns her back on her own people and her own family.
The film, which premiered in the Venice Days section of the 73rd Venice Film Festival, begins with a Swedish woman, traveling back to her native land for the funeral of her Sami sister. After this, most of the film takes the form of a long flashback during the course of which we understand why Christine, then known as Elle Marja, decided to forsake her indigenous identity.
We see her attending a Swedish boarding school, mandatory for the Sami in the 30’s. She is immediately charmed by the academic challenges it poses. At the same time, we also see the constant bullying to which Sami students, including Elle Marja and her younger sister, are subjected to. All this eventually leads to two things: the development of Elle Marja’s self-loathing attitude and her desire to pursue a life in a place far from her reindeer-growing and yoiking native grounds.
Kernell’s Sami Blood is about a specific and widely under-represented people, but it is also through her commitment to a type of specificity that the story magically becomes universal. For instance, a painstaking sequence in which doctors inhumanely take measurements of the Sami students in the school is as brutal as many other sequences depicting similar, or indeed identical, situations of any story set during Nazi Germany and dealing with the persecution of Jews. Not to mention that the coming of age aspect of the story allows for another great point of connection with the viewer. This particular aspect reaches a high-point when Elle Marja falls in love with a Swedish boy, with whom he has his first dance. This is, by far, the most charming and romantic sequence of the movie. But the romance doesn’t last: when she travels to Uppsala to meet the boy again, who had invited her to her house, the outcome is a predictable car crash.
Despite the constant bullying and abuse, Elle Marja is not portrayed as a victim; far from it. Sparrok’s excellent restrained performance, a true driving force of the film, establishes a certain distance with the viewer, who might feel her suppression of her own Sami identity as a betrayal, particularly considering cinema’s common representation of this type of oppressed characters. It is particularly shocking to see her distancing herself from her younger sister who, on the other hand, rebels against rules imposed by the Swedish (in an implied attempt to eradicate indigenous cultures) that, for instance, forbid her to yoik (a style of traditional Sami singing). This distance is precisely what makes the film feel so powerful: it appears to respect the complexity of this brand of self-betrayal and its repercussions.
There is something more troubling about Elle Marja: more often than not we may find her doing things that we ourselves might have done under similar circumstances. Indeed, it may become quite difficult to understand why the Sami find it so important to protect their own unusual, somewhat bizarre tradition, despite the obvious troubles that they are causing them. Of course, this type of troublesome identification is the most remarkable thing about the movie. Kernell allegedly based the story of Sami Blood on the life of her own grandmother; perhaps this was her attempt to understand why she did what she did. If it was, she certainly doesn’t impose her own conclusions in the end result, but she does expose a specific type of condescending mentality, here represented by the Swedes, that caused (and still causes) much pain to many people. – ★★★★
SAMEBLOD | 2016, Sweden / Denmark / Norway | Drama | Directed by – Amanda Kernell / Produced by – Lars G. Lindstrom / Written by Amanda Kernell / Music by Kristian Eidnes Andersen / Cinematography – Sophia Olsson, Petrus Sjövik / Edited by – Anders Skov / Starring – Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Hanna Alstrom, Anders Berg / 110 mins.