Sami Blood at ACMI Cinemas

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Written and directed by Amanda Kernall, this coming of age story, Sami Blood, is about an indigenous girl’s struggle for acceptance and assimilation into Swedish society in the 1930s. This visually stunning, award-winning drama addresses and entices all the senses and audiences will be drawn into the story of Elle-Marja as she turns her back on her heritage and endeavours to gain a higher education. The film explores the themes of belonging and difference as it follows Elle-Marja on her journey back to her homeland, and back in time, to events she’d rather forget.

Lene Cecilia Sparrok, in the lead role as Elle-Marja, is enchanting, as is her real life and on-screen sister, Mia Erika Sparrok. As much is said in the silences between the two actresses as in the dialogue between them.

When Elle-Marja escapes the school she has been sent to, she also leaves behind her sister, a metaphor for everything that she denies; her language, her culture and her family. When her teacher tells her that she can’t continue her studies Elle-Marja asks, “Why not?” Not once, but continuously. Elle-Marja changes her name to Christina and demonstrates what we now call “grit”, in pursuit of educational opportunities. Christina perseveres, using her intelligence to talk her way into the home of her love interest, Niklas’, and then into a proper school.

The battle between the old life and the new one often occurs for people who are transitioning into a different culture. In Christina’s case, it causes an inner conflict which remains with her into old age. She is a woman who has always been out of place, a concept demonstrated clearly by Kernall. The audience sees that, at home, her family is hurt by her rejection of them as she tries to assimilate in Swedish society. Her mother hisses, “Speak Sami”, but at school it is forbidden. Elle-Marja warns her sister not to speak Sami or yoik (sing the traditional Sami song) when in the presence of teachers.

The soundtrack for the early part of the film contains very simple sounds from nature which align with her mountain life; the call of a bird, the swishing of wet grass as boots run through it, the gentle splashing of the water as oars propel the little boat along, the trickle as Njenna allows the water to run through her fingers, wishing she could stay at home. The crunch and flash of the cameras that are used to photograph the girls are as shocking as the snap of a ruler against their knuckles when they don’t know their lessons, jolting the viewer to remember the severity of the education system in the 1930s, the world over. Similarly, when Elle-Marja is whipped after being caught sneaking away to a dance where she encounters ‘others’ for the first time, it is the crack of sticks against skin, which demonstrates her powerless far more eloquently than words ever could.
It is as she discovers the new world that the film elicits a real sense of understanding and empathy from viewers. ‘Christina’ takes a cut glass bowl from a cabinet and caresses it with wonder, she runs her hands lightly over the smooth ivory piano keys for the first time and the viewer can almost feel the new sensations. The cloth of her dress, the cotton of her lover’s jacket, and the softness of his skin, are all seen in close up as cinematographer, Sophia Olssen, takes you on this sensual journey.

When ‘Christina’ returns to her homeland for her sister’s funeral she is an old woman, but the rejection of her origins continues. She pretends not to understand her language and she seems to belong nowhere. She has sacrificed her intimacy with her family and sits, instead, at a hotel with strangers, white Swedish ladies, who accept her as one of their own but who are discussing their rather dismissive views of the Samis in the area. Shortly after this scene, ‘Christina’ is walking through a nightclub where the music and the dancers throb within a rhythm which she is clearly separate from.

Christina reflects on the circumstances of her life and is moved to seek forgiveness from her sister in her coffin and return to her home and her people. As she claws her way to the top of her mountain she looks like a crone, and the audience sees her transformation back from sophisticate to reindeer herd. Her hair, which she obsessively adjusts throughout the film to hide her own marking, comes loose and is wild, the lines on her face telling the story of much suffering and loss.
Sami Blood explores the issue of racism against the Samis with overt references and with subtlety. Local boys near the school call out abuse and assert that the Lapps “smell”. Then, girls are lined up and measured, medically examined as if they were a different species, highlighting their ‘otherness’. The lack of empathy from the teachers in this scene demonstrates clearly the lack of regard they had for their Sami students. Niklas likes ‘Christina’ but his parents compel him to ban her from their home and want her to go back to her own people. They are not outwardly rude or cruel, but it is certainly implied that Christina’s race is a problem for them.
This film has won several awards, including the Europa Cinemas Label Award and the Fedeora Award for Best Debut Director. Sami Blood won the top prize at the 2017 Göteborg Film Festival, for the Best Nordic Film. Sophia Olsson also won the Sven Nykvist Cinematography Award for the film.