Review: SAMI BLOOD, An Eye-Opening and Disquieting Tale
Writer/director Amanda Kernell's debut feature is a remarkable and devastating coming-of-age film.
I doubt there is a country in the world that doesn't have (or has had) an indigenous population, and a population that has been sevrely mistreated, either by genocide, the confiscation of lands, exposure to disease, or forced assimilation. In parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and northwestern Russia, the Sami people underwent (and possibly continue to) such treatment in the 20th century, largely overlooked by both the national and international world.
In her debut feature Sami Blood, writer/director Amanda Kernell (herself of Sami descent) brings this history to a wider audience, in a remarkable and devastating coming-of-age tale. Sensitive and focused, it's likely to resonate with North American audiences all too familiar with the horrendous treatment of indigenous peoples in their own continent.
The elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi) is reluctantly accompanying her son and granddaugher to Christina's estranged sister's funeral far north of Uppsala. Christina refuses to engage in any sort of local activity of even to speak to her extended family and former friends. Flashback several decacdes, and we meet Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), a Sami teenager, who (with her younger sister) must attend a boarding school run by the government in order to be semi-assimilated into Swedish culture and language.
But of course, the Sami will never be fully accepted; the children (and by extension their whole people) are treated as little more than animals, thought to have less developed brains, are never allowed to speak their own language even to each other, and even after their education, as told they have to return to their communites, because that's all they are good for.
Elle-Marja, obviously a very intelligent girl, bears the brunt of much of this mistreatment, from corporal punishment, to bullying and physical attacks by local boys. The usual isolation, pain of growing up, and desire to be a part of mainstream culture is double for Elle-Marja, who begins to distance herself from her Sami heritage, to the point of wanting to deny it all together. She puts on Swedish clothes, runs away from school and tries to blend in at a teachers' college.
Kernell takes an unsentimental eye to the difficulties that Elle-Marja endures; she and cinematographer Sophia Olsson use naturalistic settings and camera movements, and only a score to add an extra layer when necessary. A scene in which the female students are 'measured' and forced to strip for the camera is downright heartbreaking, as they are viewed as animals in this government-sanctioned zoo.
Sparrok is a revelation as Elle-Marja; her character is not shy, but fights to find the right words that will allow her safe passage, knowing that any moment she could be found out and punished, or sent back to the reindeer herds. Her steely determination is both admiral and difficult, as her decision means rejecting not only her heritage, but her family as well. She finds strength in her sexual awakening, but that strength has a hard edge that she carries to her elder self, Christina.
A coming-of-age story with the added horrifying twist of cultural genocide and humiliation, Sami Blood is a remarkable debut, with assured direction and performances, and a minimalist style that belies the weight of its story.
Sami Blood opens in New York on June 2nd, and will shortly expand its run to other US cities.