The debut feature from writer-director Amanda Kernell is a story of internalised racism and coming-of-age. Fourteen-year-old Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is part of an ethnic minority of Sami people who inhabit the northern reaches of Scandinavia and who have traditionally lived as semi-nomadic reindeer-herders. Deciding that she doesn’t want to pursue this traditional way of life, Elle Marja must confront the resistance of both her family and 1930s Sweden — a society in which racism is deeply ingrained.
The film has a personal inflection for the Sami-Swedish Kernell, and is said to be loosely based on some of the experiences of her grandmother. It was actually born out of the director’s earlier short film Northern Great Mountain (Stoerre Vaerie), which follows an elderly woman (Maj-Doris Rimpi) and her son as they journey to the place of her birth, in ordr to attend the funeral of her long-estranged sister. The mother does not share her son’s interest in the traditions of her Sami relatives, and shows a short-tempered intolerance for their language and customs. Kernell uses Northern Great Mountain as a narrative frame for Sami Blood, splitting it into two parts that serve to open and close the new film. The story of young Elle Marja is thus presented in flashback, an attempt to explain why the elderly woman might disavow her cultural heritage in this way.
It turns out that this has much to do with the terrible racism Elle Marja suffered as a young girl. The slurs she hears from the local farmers are just a more explicit manifestation of the systematised discrimination imposed by the Swedish government. Most pointedly for the bright Elle Marja, this takes the form of a restricted education; the Sami children are made to attend a short program at a special school, but are barred from pursuing further study. When Elle Marja asks an otherwise kindly teacher if she can move on to a mainstream school in Uppsala, she is told in no uncertain terms that Sami children are not equipped for a regular education, and that their people do not fare well in the city. It’s is an attitude that’s reinforced in a confronting scene of anthropological research, in which a Swedish scientist takes cranial measurements and naked photographs of the Sami students; a gesture towards the disturbing eugenics policies that would give rise to the Holocaust later in the same decade. The scene will also have an unsettling resonance for Australian audiences, as it recalls the genetic assimilation policies targeting Indigenous Australians in this period — depicted in films like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence.
While Elle Marja occasionally rails against the racism she encounters, she also begins to internalise it. Her self-loathing becomes a deeply embodied experience, for example, we see her furiously washing herself in a freezing lake because one of the Swedish boys commented on her smell. Beyond the propensity of Swedes to be tall and fair, however, there are no obvious physical differences between them and the Sami people, a point that Kernell makes work to some effect throughout her film. She seems to modulate the viewer’s sense of Elle Marja’s belonging by exaggerating or diminishing her physical difference. For instance, when Elle Marja does eventually talk her way into a mainstream boarding school in the city, she’s made to stand out in stark contrast against a homogenous class of leggy, blonde Swedish girls. But as she begins to get to know a few of them, it becomes apparent that like Elle Marja, some of them are also shorter, less slender or have darker hair. The systematic racism is eventually written right on to Elle Marja’s body; in an altercation with several local boys, in which she attempts to defend herself against their insults, they sever her ear like the Sami people do the ears of their reindeer. It leaves a scar that serves as a somewhat laboured metonym for the many emotional wounds Elle Marja sustains.
Sami Blood really relies on the arresting performance of newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok. She displays an incredible range in her transitions between brute strength and extreme tenderness. This is important for Kernell’s film: in addition to depicting the harsh realities of life in the polar regions, Sami Blood is also interested in the more gentle and universal moments of a girl growing up —Elle Marja attending her first party, falling for a boy, hesitantly making friends at a new school. The boy she likes is a young man from Uppsala, played by the talented Julius Fleischanderl, who, unlike the Northern boys, does not seem to be bothered by her Sami heritage. Although it initially looks like he’s not taking things quite so seriously as Elle Marja, you later begin to wonder whether she doesn’t have her own ulterior motives.
Sami Blood holds an obvious allure for viewers in its depiction of a culture and a part of the world that few will have encountered on the big screen. And Kernell is more than willing to let the camera linger over the aesthetic attractions of both. The polar tundra of far northern Sweden gives the films a harsh but majestic quality, and the traditional dress of the Sami women is among its most appealing colourful and textural objects. However, the film seems either to critique (or unknowingly cater to) this kind of cultural curiosity. Viewers may find they feel uncomfortably complicit with an enthusiastic anthropology student who embarrasses Elle Marja at an Uppsala party by pressuring her to perform yoiking, or traditional Sami throat-singing. To Kernell’s credit, for all the visual idealisation of Sami culture, it is not difficult to understand Elle Marja’s choice to leave, to pursue education and social acceptance. It is, however, enough to make her return journey as an old woman decidedly ambiguous. What is entirely unambiguous is the film’s condemnation of the kind of systematic racism that would force people to make such a choice in the first place.