ON IN CINEMAS
EIFF 2017: Sami Blood (2016)
Sami Blood starts off in present day Sweden as Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), an elderly Sami long integrated into mainstream Swedish society, attends the funeral of her sister. However, apart from her brief appearance at the church, she is reluctant to have any part in the lives of the people she left behind, and steadfastly refuses to take part in their traditional calf-marking ritual despite her own son begging her to. As she spends her evening alone in her hotel, she casts her mind back to her adolescent life, when she originally went by the name Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok).
In flashback, we learn the story of how her and her sister Njenna (Lene Cecilia’s real-life sister Mia Erika Sparrok) were sent to boarding school by their reindeer-herding parents. As we see during the film’s course, during the 1930s the Sami people were discriminated against, their children were disallowed from speaking the language or singing their traditional songs (called “yoiks”) at school, and were subjected to humiliating biological examinations. In other scenes, the sisters also get racially abused by a group of older boys living in the area, resulting in Elle-Marja confronting one of them - thus ending up being overpowered and having her ear cut by her own calf-marking knife. Despite everything, she decides that she wants to distance herself from her own people and become Swedish, even to the extent of racially slurring her own sister and distancing herself from her kinfolk.
She sees an opportunity when she casts aside her traditional garb for a fashionable dress she has stolen from a train carriage, and gatecrashes an outdoor dance. She manages to seduce a young man from Uppsala named Niklas (Julius Fleischanderl), and runs away to be with him and get a place in the city’s prestigious university.
A Swedish/Norwegian/Danish co-production featuring dialogue in both Swedish and Sami languages, Sami Blood an expansion of a 2015 Amanda Kernell short called Northern Great Mountain. It’s a rather slow-paced but fascinating story about a culture that’s little-known outside of Sweden to this day, and was treated in a grossly unfair manner back in the period where the bulk of the film is set. It works well thanks to its fine attention to the divergent cultural details of the traditional Sami lifestyle (which in many ways resembles that of Native Americans), and the elegant nationalistic arrogance of the supposedly “civilised” Swedish society of the time. It’s easy to feel a sense of outrage at the abuse visited upon Elle-Marja, but this is no simple anti-racist tract where the characters act as mouthpieces for a specific agenda. The twist is that, far from stubbornly standing up for her own identity, she (equally stubbornly) heads off in the opposite direction. As with most adolescents in real life, she’s not always the most sympathetic of characters as she carries out some rather selfish, rash and unpleasant actions throughout. It’s a character approach that arguably distances the audience from their main protagonist, but it feels convincing and I can vouch personally, having experienced similar pressures during adolescence, my understanding (though certainly not condoning) this behaviour - defined as it is by the need for acceptance and affiliation.
Sami Blood is immensely watchable for its rich, painterly cinematography as well as its startling sense of closure with its flawed, persecuted protagonist. There’s a close-in suffocating quality to the scenes were Elle-Marja undergoes various humiliations, which contrasts well with the vast landscape shots that represent her self-imposed distance from her own background. It may not be a film for all tastes, but it can’t be accused of being anything less than interesting.
Runtime: 110 mins
Dir: Amanda Kernell
Script: Amanda Kernell
Starring: Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Mia Erika Sparrok, Maj-Doris Rimpi, Hanna Alström, Julius Fleischanderl