Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.
It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.
In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.
Christina’s painful loneliness established, Kernell takes us into the past, where Christina was not Christina, but a joyful, confident Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), a teenaged Sámi girl, living with her widowed mother, her grandmother, and her sister, Njenna (Mia Erika Sparrok), nomads caring for the reindeer herd they depend upon for their livelihood. It is a life marked by intimacy and blood, closeness with one another and the natural world. The sisters, when we first see them, hold one of their reindeer down. Elle-Marja runs her hands over its fur, fingering a tuft here and there, and then, in a moment of gentle violence, cuts its ear, holding the nicked piece in her mouth as she staunches the blood with her hands. “Now he’s yours,” says she says to her younger sister. The scene tells us so much about Elle-Marja and Njenna, their world, the closeness of their relationship, Elle-Marja’s confidence and leadership.
But Elle-Marja and Njenna’s world abruptly shifts when the girls must leave home to attend a Swedish boarding school specifically established for Sámi children. Njenna leaves home, sobbing, while Elle-Marja eagerly looks ahead to another world. She has one hopeful foot in that world already, we see, when her mother reprimands her for speaking Swedish, not Southern Sámi , but Elle-Marja does, in affection for the mourning Njenna, comfort her on their journey to the school. “If you can yoik it,” she says, “you’ll be home,” reminding Njenna of the keening chanting vocal music, which expresses the heart of their Sámi selves and which they can always take with them.
It is not difficult to guess, from the set-up of the opening scenes and from what we see of Christina, that Elle-Marja will not find the brave new world of her adventurous hopes, not difficult to guess that that new world will lead to the painful, even violent, rupture between the sisters. But young Elle-Marja’s journey towards becoming the elderly Christina, some 50 years later, is not one a viewer can guess from moment to moment, for Kernell’s storytelling, framing, and camerawork immerse us so thoroughly in Elle-Marja’s evolving emotions, decisions, and actions that we must be only aware, from shot to shot, of Elle-Marja herself, a living, breathing being, full of confusion, pain, the fleeting joys, and betrayals of growing up as a Sámi girl and discovering what it means to live in the Swedish world.
The film ultimately invites us to consider the implications of colonialism and power and the tools of racist ideologies wielded to assert that colonial power over minority people groups, over the Sámi people group in particular. These considerations and implications are more relevant than ever, for any of those willing to face the sordid, shameful histories of white power both in Europe and in North America and of the ways those histories are not so much histories as ongoing evils. Indeed, in Sweden, it was not until 2011 that the “Swedish Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sámi , giving them common law rights to a specific area of land,” before that, living essentially as outsiders in the land that was historically theirs. The film shows us, too, what the first race-biological institute looked like in Sweden in the early 20th century (an institution, Kernell noted in an interview, whose practices went on to “inspire the Germans” a few decades later) and the ways in which Sámi children were deemed lesser human beings and were subjected to strippings, the coldly busy measurings of their skulls, the humiliations of allegedly scientific, photographic documentation.
One of the most significant strengths of the film, however, is that the larger history and the important socio-political issues are so thoroughly embedded in the personal that the film is not what we might call just an “issue film.” Kernell, in an interview with Variety, asserted that the film is not intended to be “educational,” and, indeed, it does not feel so, even if it does take such care to represent an authentically Sámi experience in the racist Swedish context. The two sisters, in luminous, marvelous performances, are real life sisters and speak Southern Sámi , a language only a few speak today, and Kernell is careful to get the details of costume and culture right. A viewer may, then, as I did, when finishing the film, rush to the internet for more information about the people group that has had so little attention for a white, Western audience, but for all the ideological and cultural significance, the weight of the film rests with Elle-Marja and her psychological and emotional evolution, the slowly growing fracture of her mind, of her divided longings – and it is that focus that reveals the larger issues as so vital.
It is extraordinary that Amanda Kernell, in her first feature, has such exquisite control of her art, making larger political concerns so intimately human. We’ve noted already the film’s bookends, Christina’s current moment surrounding the flashback to her younger self, and it provides an elegantly simple structure that works on both the story and the emotional level. A film using such bookends often fails in the final moments, offering alternatively too tidy or too self-consciously artful an ending. But here, the final shots do not merely repeat what we know or fulfill what we might predict: they are simple, but they show us the impossible complexities of Christina-Elle-Marja, her being and her world and hit an emotional note that cannot be easily shaken off.
The bookends, though, are only one aspect of the film, and Kernell’s camerawork and editing put us into the heart of Elle-Marja’s experience and psychology. The basic conflict of her being resides in the impossible task of thriving, as her Sámi self, in the midst of a dominant Swedish culture. The great irony of the Swedish world is that while it insists on the repression and excision of the Sámi language and culture, except in certain contexts where it may be fetishized and studied, it also insists that any Sámi person can never be Swedish and therefore fully an equal. Kernell demonstrates this dreadful irony in scenes where a teacher says, explicitly, on the one hand, that Southern Sámi must not be spoken in school, and, on the other hand, that Sámi children may not go on to seek higher education. “Studies have shown,” the teacher says, “[Sámi ] people can’t get by in town. [Their] brains are . . . [pause] . . . [They] don’t have what it takes.” The boarding school is meant to drive the Sámi out of them, as it were, and yet Sámi children may not seek full personal and educational equality. Elle-Marja and her fellow Sámi , then, are forcibly and intimately connected to Swedish language and culture but always also forcibly isolated from it.
Even more than in scenes of dialogue like those in the boarding school, however, Kernell’s camerawork and editing force us into Elle-Marja’s dilemma and emotional space. Kernell frequently juxtaposes extreme close-ups – Elle-Marja’s face or her fingers – with extreme long shots – Elle-Marja, a little figure within a vast space. Elle-Marja feels, desires, and intimately experiences her world and her relationships, and yet she is simultaneously an alien Other, isolated, cast out, and alone.
The visual motif of staring, watching eyes, too, underscores Elle-Marja’s alienation: she is watched, constantly observed, never a participant, and Kernell frequently cuts from the staring eyes to a close up of Elle-Marja’s expressive and vulnerable face.
Elle-Marja’s desperate desire to be accepted as Swedish and her constant experience of isolation within that culture is further compounded by the fact that that desire is perceived as betrayal within the Sámi community. Not only do Swedish eyes stare, Sámi eyes stare – her sister, her mother, the other Sámi school children – Elle-Marja cannot long for Swedish experience and equality and remain true to her own community. It is a terrible fracturing of the self, and Elle-Marja herself stares into the mirror again and again, as if in query of her own being.
In the beginning of the film, Elle-Marja tells her distraught sister, “If you can yoik it, you’ll be home,” and by the end, the full weight of that statement is brought to bear on Elle-Marja herself, and it continues in the woman with the Swedish name, Christina, who was once Elle-Marja. The “if you can” is not a question of ability, but of desire. Elle-Marja can yoik; Christina can yoik, but does she want to? Can she ever want to, in the midst of a dominant culture that will not recognize the deepest roots of her identity as valuable, as equally valuable, but as, at best, a curiosity for anthropological study? The idealist can, perhaps, answer that question easily. It is good and right to choose to be what you know to be good and right, no matter what pressures beset you.
But for the girl whose head is gripped within the steely arms of calipers and whose body is photographed, nude, by male scientists? Ability, choice, desire, right, wrong, family, the very notion of the self – all of these are things that are perhaps only easily distinguishable within a community that grants every individual both autonomy and equality.
(This review adapted from the review published in May 2017.)