Amanda Kernell, who wrote and directed her first feature film, told me she is surprised and honored that her project has been so praised and well received at festivals around the world. Kernell had already done a series of acclaimed short films, but “Sami Blood” is the movie she always knew she would make. It took her time as she put it, “To find the courage and the means.” Continue reading…
Kernell’s own family is Sami so she has been familiar her whole life with the culture of reindeer herders and the prejudicial treatment of this unique group of Laplanders.
In the 1930’s when the movie takes place, young Sami girls were sent to segregated boarding schools to learn Swedish language and culture even though they were cruelly reminded that they would never be able to integrate into city life because of perceived “limitations.” There were so called “good intentions” along with the humiliation of being labeled as inferior outsiders.
AWFJ was invited to host a screening of “Sami Blood” at the famed Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, where I talked on stage with the film’s creator. Here are some highlights of my conversation with Amanda Kernell:
Jeanne Wolf: You have traveled with your movie and done press around the United States and around the world. This is not a known story. I’m fascinated that people from such wildly different cultures have responded to this unique journey.
Amanda Kernell: It is very universal that some groups have experienced isolation and discrimination. Now integration and inclusion and prejudice are very much on our minds and in media everywhere. Issues of immigration and differences in backgrounds and ways of life are very much a current concern.
JW: How did your own family feel about the movie?
AK: The community has embraced the film even though there are very painful things in it. Members of the community and my family are very interested in their past and their heritage. There is great pride in our history and also great division about people who left long ago and never came back or kept up connections. Most of my family still work with the reindeer. The younger generation is very curious about things that happened to our people that they’ve read about or heard about.
JW: There are scenes that are very blunt about the girls being told they could never make it in the wider culture or the big city because of their upbringing and their genetics.
AK: Sami people and Sami women are very strong. They don’t show weakness.
JW: You insisted on Sami actresses and you wanted the sisters to be real sisters.
AK: That did seem impossible from the beginning. It took time, but I met many young women who could do this. There are only 500 living speakers of the language in the world. I found these sisters – there were actually three sisters – but I could only use two. Then, as a filmmaker I knew I had to find a face that you would remember forever.
JW: What was it like working with these girls on a film set for the first time?
AK: They told me that they could do whatever I needed them to do except cry. They couldn’t cry.
JW: But they do cry.
AK: Yes they do. Very briefly. I told them that we have ways on the set to make it look like they were crying. But they refused that. They wanted it to be real. They also said when they fought in the scenes, they actually wanted to fight. I told them that’s not the way it’s done in the movies. My main actress, who plays Elle-Marja, said she wanted the girls to really hurt her. I had to explain that we do scenes and fights many times, but they insisted they wanted everything to be authentic All of the girls were so hard-working.
JW: The scenes where scientists actually measure the girls – make them undress. Treat them like “freaks.” Did that bother the girls?
AK: No this was special to them because they had read about these things and seen pictures and heard the stories from relatives. All the children wanted to be measured with the instruments but we didn’t take the time. They said undressing was like having to wear a bikini at school where the other students could see you and you were ashamed of your body. They understood wishing you were someone else.
JW: And after filming what did your actress want to do? Will she continue acting? She is very talented and memorable.
AK: So many people ask me about her. She wanted to go home even when we were doing press in exotic locations. Even when she won a best actress award in Japan. She felt it was very important for her to go back and work with her father herding reindeer. She feels she has a responsibility to a culture that is thousands of years old. She wants to be with her family and carry on the Ami traditions so they won’t die.
JW: Can you describe the pride you feel in your accomplishment?
AK: The best thing is that people in every city and every situation come up to me and let me know, “This is my story.” I thought it would touch people but I didn’t expect how deeply they would connect.
Even at the night of the screening for AWFJ, audience members were sharing their memories and their personal reactions.
As the film ends, Elle-Marja [Lena Cecilia Saprrok] now a very old woman, returns to her Sami enclave in the mountains of northern Sweden. The tall tents which look like Indian teepees are the same and reindeer wander about. But parked in the grass pastures are SUVs, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles. I guess you could call that progress, even if it does seem to intrude on a pastoral way of life far from the big city.
Amanda Kernell revealed that civilization is encroaching in other ways. “We were filming in some very primitive mountain locations,” she said. “But there are more than a few cell phone and radio towers popping up. I had to be very careful that we framed them out.”
I wondered if the young star, who still spends part of her time in the mountaintop village surfs the internet. Maybe Lena checked out Rotten Tomatoes to see how the film fared with critics. She’d have been pleased. It’s ranked at 86 per cent which is just a few points below Wonder Woman.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Read more about Amanda Kernell and Sami Blood on AWFJ.org
Sami Blood is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week (#MOTW)
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