SAMI BLOOD — Review by Cate Marquis

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In her feature film debut SAMI BLOOD, director/writer Amanda Kernell offers a moving coming-of-age story of two sisters, members of the reindeer-herding indigenous Sami people, in 1930s Sweden. Told from the viewpoint of the older sister, a bright 14-year-old who dreams of becoming a teacher, the films depicts their experiences with the dominate Swedish culture who called her people Lapps, as a time when racial prejudice as well as eugenics, the pseudo-science of race biology which laid the groundwork for the Nazis, was common.

The two sisters are portrayed charmingly by a pair of real sisters, Lene Cecilia Sparrok as the older girl Elle-Marja and Mia Erika Sparrok as her little sister Njenna. Lene Cecilia Sparrok’s expressive, beautiful face speaks volumes about the humiliations she endures, and a range of other feelings as she also struggles with all the pain, longing and difficulties of any adolescent.

Kernell wanted to explore why so many Sami people of that time period left their traditional culture and abandoned their families to integrate into Swedish society. What the film reveals is both illuminating and heartbreaking.

Some of what the sisters experience at the Swedish-run boarding school for Sami children will remind some American audiences familiar with their own country’s history of Indian boarding schools, where students were forbidden to speak their Native language. However, in Sweden, while the children are forbidden to speak their language or sing traditional songs, called yoiking, the Sami students are not only allowed to wear their traditional dress but required to do so. They were expected to return to their families rather than assimilate, and the policy was to maintain “racial” separation.

Elle-Marja’s ambition to be a teacher puts her at odds with both Swedish and Sami culture, as both expect her to return to her traditional ways after school. The story is told in flashback, and starts with the older sister as an elderly woman returning with her son and granddaughter for her estranged sister’s funeral. Now fully integrated in Swedish society, she is still haunted by her past.

SAMI BLOOD is unsentimental yet avoids harsh austerity, to achieve an insightful, human tone. The film is well-made, and the understated performance by Lene Sparrok is very moving, her stillness in the face of painful prejudices is as effective as the touching warmth and humor with her little sister. Subtle emotions play across her face, as she confronts taunts by local Swedish boys, or experiences her first dance. Scenes between the two sisters are among the film’s greatest pleasures. On the other hand, a scene where the students, who had proudly greet visitors from Uppsala, are then subjected to a series of physical measurements with clinical indifference to their humanity, is especially chilling.

While the film gives remarkable insight on the historical Swedish treatment of the Sami people, we do not learn as much about the Sami as one might expect. However, as a depiction of the emotional experience of prejudice and a realistic and moving depiction of adolescence, the film is remarkable in its power.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sami Blood is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week (#MOTW) for June 2 – 9, 2017.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.