A stunning debut from Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell, Sami Blood is a captivating feature examining the costs of cultural assimilation, both externally coerced and self-imposed. While the narrative is driven by familiar themes (ethnic intolerance, class struggles), it’s set in a time and place quite unfamiliar to most: northern Scandinavia during the 1930s, when the toxicity of xenophobic nationalism was washing over Europe. This engaging drama tells the tale of a Sami girl, Elle Marja (played by newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok), as she struggles to abandon her indigenous, reindeer-herding Sami identity and integrate herself into a tantalizingly modern Swedish society.
The film begins as a teenage Elle Marja and her younger sister are sent away to a Swedish boarding school for Sami children. It is abundantly clear that the Sami are viewed as “less than,” even by those charged with their care and education. They are forbidden to speak Sami, and they are required to sing songs of gratitude. Elle Marja is often harassed by the local Swedish boys. In fact, some of the awful things shouted at Elle Marja (ridiculing her smell and appearance, etc.) are actual things yelled at Kernell in her youth.
When officials from a nearby city visit her classroom, bigotry masquerades as compassion and curiosity. One visitor blithely refers to the childrens’ traditional Sami dress as “beautiful costumes.” Another observes that their hair is “not bristly at all.” Elle Marja has phrenological facial measurements taken and is humiliatingly undressed and photographed in front of onlookers. It recalls similar attempts to scientifically legitimize racism by pointing out imagined biological differences, a practice that emerged during several of our most disgraceful historical periods. Beyond that, assimilating indigenous children in boarding schools while suppressing their culture is a familiar story to audiences throughout North America.
Similarly painful to watch is a scene at a luncheon in which Elle Marja is asked to “yoik,” a traditional Sami form of singing. Despite her obvious discomfort, she acquiesces. What began as insensitive cultural inquiry ends with the protagonist feeling like a circus animal being forced to perform in some awkward anthropological display. In these scenes, however, Sparrok is positively extraordinary. Her eyes convey rage, defiance, trepidation, and yearning with a level of show-stopping proficiency rarely seen in a first-time actor/actress.
It can be argued that US citizens currently find ourselves in a crisis of empathy deficit. For many, it’s difficult to recall a time of greater polarization and an unwillingness to see the humanity in those we perceive to be culturally or politically different. In a town like Brattleboro, citizens often pride ourselves on progressive attitudes toward racial and social justice. But it’s worthwhile to remember that an overwhelmingly white area can easily be largely oblivious to the struggles experienced by people of color. In Sami Blood, both the perpetrators and victims of discrimination are white, so if witnessing injustice happening to people who look like you more fully fosters genuine empathy and understanding about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bigotry, it ought to be required viewing.
Kernell’s steady, nuanced direction coupled with Sparrok’s preternatural aptitude combine into one of the strongest films in the Festival’s 2017 lineup. Never heavy-handed or sanctimonious, the film makes its case with a gentle summation. The film closes with an elderly Elle Marja and a stark reminder that a lifetime of self-loathing and intolerance can carry a very heavy price tag.
Adam Christophe is a volunteer and member of the Brattleboro Film Festival Selection Committee and works as a pharmacist in town. He lives in Vernon with his spouse and their two lovably rambunctious min pins.
Sami Blood screens Friday, November 10 at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, November 11 at 5 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre.