By Elias Savada.
The sad fate and cruel savagery hoisted on many indigenous people have been part of an angst-filled sidebar on the world stage for centuries. Explore/invade/plunder/kill/assimilate. In the history of cinema, you’ll find dozens of films that walk and talk among native populations, whether in Australia (Ten Canoes, Walkabout, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Rabbit Proof Fence) or America (Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves, Smoke Signals), just to name two countries that have been blemished by too many ethnic atrocities. Add Sweden to the list.
Swedish-born and Danish Film School educated Amanda Kernell, who has been making short films for the last decade, has taken a personal slant on Swedish colonial history with Sami Blood (Same Blod), a remarkable first feature that grew out of her award-winning 15-minute film Stoerre Vaerie (Northern Great Mountain) from 2015. It also was borne from her own ancestry with the Sami culture, a native people inhabiting parts of far northern Scandinavia. They live a quiet, nomadic existence fishing, trapping, and herding of sheep (or in this movie, reindeer). They are attired in a traditional costume known as Gákti, with coloring and patterns indicative of the area or family from which the wearer comes. Most Swedes are unfamiliar with them, and for anyone fortunate enough to catch the film, you would get a better perspective if you do some rudimentary homework before viewing.
One particular aspect that is an integral part of the film is yoiking, a guttural, often-improvised song-chant which displays a wide-range of emotion.
The feature, with dialogue in Southern Sami and Swedish, presents a 1930s look at the racism (vocal taunts, sidelong gazes, some brutality) against the Sami. Bearing the brunt of this harassment are two sisters whose father has died and their mother, in order to manage her life, pushes her daughters to attend a remote school for the Sami, where the teacher pushes Swedish culture and language on her dozen or so students. Capital punishment is part of the curriculum.
The film is a psychological tug-of-war for the sisters (who are played by siblings Lene Cecilia Sparrok and Mia Erika Sparrok, as 14-year-old Elle Marja and the younger Njenna), but the more emotional role of Elle Marja showcases an incredibly fierce drive to separate herself from her past and blend in with the masses. The actors, both newcomers, give elegant, powerful performances, but Lene carries the load as a girl/woman who is trying the transform herself from an object of ridicule to one of affection. The story hinges on her makeover, a process that washes away her past and adopts a lifetime of assimilation. She rechristens herself Christina Lajler, the name of her teacher, after an evening dancing with a young, pretty boy from Uppsala. It’s a uneasy transformation handled with adroit hand-held camerawork by Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik.
The film’s anthropological issues also touch on eugenics, when several city doctors force the students into an embarrassing state of undress, issuing forth now long-refuted dictums on the superiority of one race over the other. This scene precedes a more vicious one involved a marking ritual (performed by the Sami on their reindeer) by some local ruffians on “the filthy Lapp.” How Elle Marja/Christine fixates on her hair is caused by this mutilation.
When she does make her way to Uppsala, her newfound Prince Charming apparently has other plans, at least for now. So she tries Plan B, for books. She hits them, albeit with a touch of cliquishness from her new classmates offering a queasy first day of school. She adapts. And overcomes.
Lene Cecilia Sparrok’s performance is a showstopper. She’s in nearly every scene at the core of the film, but her presence is felt at the beginning and end, which jumps ahead to current day Sweden when her character has aged and agonized for decades as Christine (Maj Doris Rimpi), embittered but well educated (she became a teacher), who is being pushed to attend the funeral of her long-estranged sister. She wants nothing to do with her roots, becoming one with those same ignorant Swedes who do not understand the ways of the Sami.
There’s a growing sadness in Kernell’s haunting coming-of-age story. Washing away the dirt and smell and costume so closely associated with Elle Marja’s ancestors, as Christine, she takes on the nature of her surroundings with clumsy eagerness and brazen luck. It’s left for her to decide, 80 years later, if she truly did leave the village behind.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).