“Sami Blood,” set primarily in 1930s Sweden, tells the heartbreaking and eye opening story of Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), a teenage girl of the Sami, a semi-nomadic indigenous people whose highly sophisticated traditional culture and way of life are completely intertwined with the reindeer they herd and breed throughout Northern Scandinavia. Framed by contemporary scenes in which an elderly Elle-Marja (now known by the Swedish name of Christina) reluctantly returns to the homeland and traditions she fled as a girl, the film is a moving coming-of-age story about a young girl wrestling with issues of cultural identity and destiny in addition to all of her typical teenage angst.
Elle-Marja’s affecting story exemplifies the Sami people’s struggle to keep their culture alive and maintain their way of life despite systemic denial by the governments of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. As was typical in Sweden at the time and until quite recently, Elle-Marje and her younger sister, along with other Sami children, were taken from family, removed from their community and sent to boarding schools for indoctrination into the predominant Swedish social system, which considered Sami to be inferior and incapable of anything other than menial labor. At boarding school, the children were thrashed for speaking Sami and tormented by biological eugenics testing to calibrate their ethnicity.
At age 14, Elle-Marja is a bright, ambitious teenager who loves learning and longs to fit in. At boarding school, she all but idolizes her stylish, blonde Swedish teacher (Hanna Alstrom) who seems to recognize the girl’s intelligence and hard work and to take a shine to her, too. But, Elle-Marja, who is quite willing and eager to assimilate, is still subjected to prejudice, ignorance, and humiliation from the Swedes, who view the Sami as quaintly inferior, at best.
Eventually, Elle-Marje can’t take it anymore and runs away. Hiding her Sami identity, she heads south, finds her way into a regular Swedish girl’s school and seeks admission to the University of Uppsala. But can Elle-Marje escape the heritage she’s come to loathe? And, if she does, what toll will that loathing eventually take on her?
Writer/director Amanda Kernell’s thoughtful and beautifully crafted first feature is an expanded version of her own 2015 short film, Northern Great Mountain. The narrative is based on her grandmother’s life story, and it is compelling. This very intimate and affecting tale about one Sami girl coming of age in Sweden raises awareness about the plight of indigenous peoples seeking self-determination around the globe.
First-time actress Lene Cecilia Sparrok’s performance as young Elle-Marja is stunning. While exuding the qualities of a typical teenager, Sparrok makes utterly believable her character’s desire and determination to fit in with people who mistreat her. Elle-Marja’s desperation is completely understandable, and equally sad.
There are no easy answers or unencumbered happy endings here; like the long, hard northern winters endured by the Sami people, Sami Blood can at times seem bleak. But it also offers moments of bright color and beauty in its lovely cinematography.
Sami Blood is an important film, serving as a timely reminder that people continually find ways to demean others and that subjugation isn’t directly correlated with skin color or geography. Sami Blood is guaranteed to open your eyes and make you think. — Betsy Bozdech with Jennifer Merin
Team #MOTW Comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: When a film transports you to a society you never knew existed, it can prove magically transcendent while incredibly moving. Add an adolescent female discovering what she is capable of and you have me hooked. Read full review.
Sheila Roberts: Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell makes an impressive feature debut with “Sami Blood,” a moving coming-of-age drama set in 1930’s Sweden. Kernell’s sharply written, sobering script explores adolescent concerns common to every nationality and generation while also mining the social prejudices of an era and the culturally specific oppression of the indigenous Sami people. Newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok delivers a riveting, nuanced performance as Elle-Marja, a bright, ambitious young Sami who, along with her younger sister (played by real-life younger sister Mia Erika Sparrok), is sent from her reindeer-herding family to a Sami-only boarding school when their father dies. Elle-Marja rebels against the artificial limitations imposed on her by a condescending, repressive society and courageously seeks out a better future, but it comes at a terrible price. Her story is told in an extended flashback, bookended by the elderly Elle-Marja’s reluctant return to Lapland to attend her sister’s funeral, an event which forces her to come to terms with her past. Kernell’s decision to cast Sami to portray the Sami characters lends a fascinating layer of authenticity and emotional honesty to the narrative. Noteworthy also is the stunning cinematography by Sophia Olsson. Kernell is a powerful storyteller who elicited wonderful performances from a largely non-professional cast. I look forward to seeing more from this brave filmmaker.
Anne Brodie: Director/writer Amanda Kernell‘s Sámi Blood raises the spectre of nativist racism in Sweden where bias exists against the Sámi, a reindeer herding population also known as Laplanders. In the present day, an elderly woman runs away from her mother’s funeral, driven by intense emotion. Flashback and she is fourteen, her name is Elle Marja and she lives in a mountain tent. She has a brief taste of “Swedish” life, of the fine houses, dresses, and school — things that she sees as better — and rejects her Sámi identity. Now calling herself Christine, she leaves the community for a city school only to find her education is lacking and she can’t pay the fee. Her new society friends, who look on her as a novelty, refuse to help, and there is little comfort. Kernell paints a devastating portrait of hopes dashed by systemic racism that could apply to many cultures around the world. Her vivid portrayal of two separate and unequal worlds in one country is startlingly familiar.
Jennifer Merin: Beautifully crafted with exceptionally skilled storytelling, spectacular cinematography, flawless editing, and stunning lead performances by first-time actresses and real life sisters Lene Cecilia Sparrok as Elle-Marje and Mia Erika Sparrok as her sister, Njenna, Sami Blood is Amanda Kernell’s first feature. The film garnered critical acclaim and prizes at Sundance, TIFF, Berlinale, Venice and other film festivals. Now it’s AWFJ’s turn! Sami Blood is a must see! Read full review.
Cate Marquis: 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. As a depiction of the emotional experience of prejudice and a realistic and moving depiction of adolescence, the film is remarkable in its power. Read full review.
Title: Sami Blood
Director: Amanda Kernell
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Running Time: 110 minutes
Language: Sami and Swedish, with English subtitles.
Principal Cast: Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Mia Erika Sparrok, Maj-Doris Rimpi
Screenwriter: Amanda Kernell
Production Company: Bautafilm
Distribution Company: Synergetic Distribution
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf, Dorothy Woodend
Written by Dorothy Woodend and Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin