TIFF 2016 – Sami Blood (2016)


You can point to any period of human history and be sure to find horrendous examples of minority persecution. Motivations and methods vary; sometimes blunt, sometimes subtle, sometimes vindictive, sometimes well-meaning, but the end result always causes pain. So it is with the Sami in the north of Sweden, an indigenous people who have been pressed and penned and treated like most indigenous people over the years. Sami Blood uses a 14-year-old girl to show the personal cost of such actions with profoundly moving effect.

Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) attends a boarding school in the local area where Sami children are forcibly taken by the state and given half an education. They are expected to learn Swedish and refrain from speaking their native tongue at the cost of a wrap across the knuckles. The aim is partly to civilise the heathens, but not completely. When Elle-Marja asks about furthering her studies in a Swedish school, she’s quickly rebuffed. Her kind can’t handle town living. Much better they remain nearby, parading around in regional dress that draws stares and sneers from the local Swedes.

Something changes in Elle-Marja, setting her apart from everyone. She starts to crave the world denied. The framing device deployed starts with her as an elderly woman returning for her sister’s funeral. There she pretends not to speak Sami though the shame of her denial weighs heavily. We know from this start she gets out from the straightjacket imposed by the state. The painful impact of Sami Blood comes in watching her struggle towards this.

An impressive debut feature, everything about this emotionally charged journey is handled expertly. Director Amanda Kernell keeps a tight grip on the pace, allowing it to creep forward no faster than Elle-Marja, who soon takes on the moniker Christina. Sweeping countryside is painted in stark colours, austere and imposing. The palette doesn’t really alter in town either, bright flowers and buildings dimmed to avoid overwhelming the frame. Although she pulls back regularly, the camera finds itself close in on Sparrok’s face for much of the running time, watching intently as she deals with a succession of impossibly challenging situations.

If Kernell is assured, Sparrok is a revelation. She imbues Elle-Marja with quiet assertiveness, constantly stepping forward into the unknown no matter how terrified. This is a teenager willing to strike out alone and venture into a world she has almost no knowledge of. Cream cakes and gymnastics are new. Even speaking Swedish is largely a novelty. Time and again she’s confronted by humiliating setbacks, forced to sleep in parks and yoik, a native Sami style of singing, for Swedish teenagers. She faces up to bullies and faces down her family when it becomes clear she has to choose between lives.

This choice is one beyond most people, never mind a kid. Living free in Sweden can only come if she abandons her life. There is no scenario that doesn’t see her losing. To escape school trips that see them marched as if in a chain gang, or humiliating visits from local dignitaries in which she is forced to strip for scientific photographs, she must say goodbye to the sister she dearly loves. The full force of her decision is felt.

Elle-Marja, later Christina, is a remarkable character caught between worlds. There’s no move she can make without losing something. Sami Blood burns with anger and sadness at a society that can inflict this on her.

Director: Amanda Kernell
Cast: Lene Cecilia Sparrok
Runtime: 110 mins

Country: Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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