Fundamentally there is much about Sami Blood that cinema has seen many times over, though for her debut feature writer-director Amanda Kernell has delivered a uniquely complex and painfully relevant coming-of-age while also shedding light on the largely unknown indigenous population of Swedish Lappland. A film of cultural identity and great pain, the prodigiously talented director paints a picture so real this feature almost feels like a documentary, one with a brutal touch and an unflinching sense of cruelty so as to ensure it never downplays the effects of extreme prejudice.
Before we get to 1930s Sweden, the film’s primary setting, we are introduced to Sami Blood through grown-up protagonist, Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), who unwillingly visits her Sami hometown for a funeral, after abandoning it long ago. Christina is disconnected from the culture she grew up in, despondent and frustrated with a tinge of regret and guilt painted on her face. It’s clear this is a woman who has been through a painful identity crisis and still bears the scars in her elder years, so when the film then takes us back into her youth (at age 14) we immediately understand the consequences of the cruelty she is about to face.
Belonging to the Sami people, who are defined by outsiders by their reindeer herding, Christina – then going by her birth name Elle-Marja – is shown to live a deeply devout life guarded by her widow mother and buoyed by her younger sister Njenna (Mia Erika), with whom she shares a close bond. As a youth, the film’s protagonist is played by newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok who traverses her difficult material with surprising depth, speaking to a talent far beyond her years; one which certainly saves this film in it’s weaker moments – as few as they are.
The desire to branch out into the world, an innocent yearning for something other than a life of tradition, is what spurs Elle’s first venture to a more urban setting. She quickly discovers that those outside of her own culture view the Sami through an intensely ethnocentric lens, disregarding them as human without exception. Subjected to her first of many encounters with bullies, she is immediately bogged down by internal shame, returning with a flattened spirit and self-hatred. The insidious state of shame is a motif throughout the film, casting a sadly inescapable shadow over Marja as she enters a Sami-only boarding school.
Kernell dosn’t shy away from the plight of either Marja or the Sami community at large, highlighting a scope of harmful – both physically and mentally – prejudice that ranges from both explicit and cruel to well-meaning but condescending. Abuse and exclusion is pervasive and particularly misogynistic in what should be an educational institution designed to assist a teenager’s formative years; it’s intense, stinging and bluntly illustrated by minimalism and a sharp dedication to naturalism. Kernell, who herself has Sami ancestry, proves an articulate and thoughtful voice with the confidence necessary to distinguish such a harsh piece amidst a long history of large-scale oppression in cinema.
Perhaps most concerning is the depiction of the boarding school as a whole. Its function seems hypocritical and evil, taunting children with assimilation (hence “acceptance”) into Swedish culture before using pseudo-scientific practices like phrenology to justify why it could never happen. It’s a cycle of humiliation and dehumanisation, the universality of which is never lost on Kernell as she makes it clear that this is both a reverent treatment of the unparalleled discrimination faced by the Sami people, and an obvious metaphor that can be applied to indigenous populations around the world.
In the face of all this, Elle remains steadfast in her attempt to live the life she so desires, even experiencing love and a degree of acceptance which to the audience should be a relief from all this palpable agony. By the time we revisit Marja as Christina in her older years, the film has given such a rich, fully fleshed history of her shame and self-hatred that an overwhelming flood of sympathy is understandable.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 110 minutes
Sami Blood is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival. More information and tickets can be found HERE.