Sami Blood (Sameblod)

Sweden (2016) Dir. Amanda Kernell

It’s tough to fit in, even tougher when your race or heritage incurs discrimination and the pariah treatment or establishments designed specifically to help write you off for the same reasons. This revelatory debut film from Sami-Swedish director Amanda Kernell eloquently states the case on behalf of the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia. 

78-year-old Christina née Elle-Marja (Maj-Doris Rimpi) begrudgingly returns to her native Lapland with her son Olle (Olle Sarri) and granddaughter Sanna (Anne Biret Somby) for her sister’s funeral. Neither Olle nor Sanna can understand the bitterness Christina shows towards her homeland and family, which seems to be reciprocated by others at the funeral

The story then jumps back to 1930’s Lapland where 14 year-old Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) and her younger sibling Njenna (Mia Sparrok) live a bucolic life raising reindeer following their father’s death. To provide them with a basic education the sisters are sent to a neighbouring residential school where speaking Sami is forbidden and instead they are taught Swedish.

Proving way ahead of the others at the school, Elle-Marja aspires to a future in Uppsala rather than the stultifying traditions of her Sami heritage. When told by her teacher (Hanna Alström) that Sami people will never amount to anything regardless of how well educated they are, Elle-Marja decides to take matters into her own hands.

For those of us unfamiliar with the indigenous Sami of Scandinavia and their plight as a maligned race Amanda Kernell offers us a compelling education with her assured and unflinching debut. Herself of Sami blood, a lot of the verbal abuse hurled at the Sami from the local yobs here is verbatim of the barbs Kernell received as a child.

Such authenticity of this surrounding negativity makes the Sami immediate sympathy figures but as the story progresses, we learn their immutable stance against modernising and integration within a rapidly changing society is equally to blame for stifling those with aspirations beyond reindeer farming.

One unique aspect of Sami Blood is how it’s seamlessly bookended by Kernell’s short film from the year before Stoerre Vaerie. The steely and intense presence of elderly Elle-Marja is effectively incendiary in demanding the story is behind her truculent behaviour is told. Kernell now has a captive audience at her mercy unaware of what she has prepared to unleash upon us.

It is apparent from the Sami children forced to dress in their traditional garb they are set up as targets for persecution and abuse of “filthy Lapps” from the sneery Swedish locals. For Elle-Marja, being referred to in such derogatory terms is anathema to her yet serves to fuel her desire to better herself, yet there is an irony in Elle-Marja’s ease in learning Swedish that she is outcast by her Sami classmates, including her sister.

Spitefully calling her “The Swede” Elle-Marja is left at odds with her identity, being demonised by both sides for wanting a better life. Her fortunes improve a little when wearing a dress stolen from the teacher’s washing line and is treated like a human being for the first time by some Swedish boys who invite her to a dance.

One of them, Niklas (Julius Fleischanderl) takes a shine to Elle-Marja who introduces herself to him as Christina, the name she would adopt and use hereinafter, a decision that distances her further from her family. Living in Uppsala, Niklas represents a beacon of hope for Christina, running away from the school to be with him but things don’t work out quite so well.

Christina goes on an adventure way beyond the life skills and maturity of your average 14 year-old but this precocious and resourceful girl is blessed with determination and the good fortune of happenstance; Christina ends up enrolling into a girls school but with the fees proving an issue, she is right back to where she started as her Sami family have no money.

Kernell is proudly representing her Sami heritage with this film but not necessarily at the expense of the Swedish or anyone else complicit in their persecution. The narrative is very matter-of-factly; it doesn’t pull any punches nor does it reify Uppsala as the solution to all of Christina’s problems – just a different set of problems that won’t result in the extrusion of her Sami bloodline.

Arguably the most chilling scene is the one in which 19 year-old first time actress Lene Cecilia Sparrok displays her star making potential – a group of Swedish anthropologists arrive at the school and roughly perform a physical inspection on the Sami children as if they were animals. Sparrok’s essaying of Elle-Marja’s trepidation, confusion and sense of humiliation at being forced to undress for photos is pitch-perfect in permeating this discomfort beyond the screen to the audience.

For Kernell, it is the closing moments of this scene that reveals her canny instincts as a filmmaker, showing Elle-Marja outside the classroom shuddering with nervous jolts every time the flashbulb goes off behind her, as if she was eavesdropping on the execution of her fellow Sami. A more provocative and powerfully evocative scene I’ve not witnessed in a long time.

Every one of the cast acquits themselves superbly in their roles, be they experienced or nascent, the latter made up of genuine Sami people. A nod goes to Maj-Doris Rimpi for her silently intense reading of older Christina, but it is Lene Cecilia Sparrok’s wonderfully expressive face with her big eyes that can register shock, wonder, naivety, joy, fire, and sadness with adroit effortlessness in her captivating debut performance that makes her a name to look out for in the future.

Aside from raising awareness of the systematic discrimination of the Sami people, Sami Blood exposes us to a side of Scandinavian cinema that defies the Nordic Noir tag a well as introducing us to two exciting new talents in world cinema. A vital, uncompromising, and confident film that combines a shameful history lesson with a welcome fresh twist to the coming-of-age/female empowerment drama.