SAMI BLOOD is the first Swedish film in the South Sami language, the language of that country’s reindeer-herding indigenous people of the north. Amanda Kernell, part Sami herself, realized the enormous responsibility that comes not only with that, but also with accurately representing the racism that sent the Sami to enforced boarding schools where they were taught Swedish and that they were inferior beings.
When I spoke with Kernell by phone on May 31, 2017, the first we talked about was her own connection to Sami culture, and her aim to confront the universal themes of racism despite her film being so time and place specific.
She went on to talk about the responsibility she felt in taking on this subject; the reaction in Sweden to having a dark part of its past depicted; the moving response to her film that she received at the Sundance Film Festival by a Native American; and the lingering, perhaps unquantifiable, long-term psychic damage done to Sami who were separated from their families for so much of their childhood.
We finished up with her describing her own experiences of racism, including being asked to yoik (a traditional Sami singing technique); the reaction of her family to talking about a subject some of them would prefer to ignore; and what she sees as her job as an artist.
SAMI BLOOD examines a little-known facet of recent Swedish history concerning the discriminatory treatment of the Sami. Forced to attend boarding schools where their language and culture were forbidden, but where they were also told that they were inferior to the Swedes, and unfit for anything but their nomadic life, the Sami were also subjected to dehumanizing research that included being measured and photographed nude by the State Institute of Race Biology. Kernell frames her story in the present, but sets the bulk of it in the 1930s, both seen through the eyes of Ella-Marja, a Sami girl sent to one those schools with her younger sister. Unlike her sister, though, Ella-Marja internalizes the racism to which she is subjected, and longs to become fully Swedish, eventually running away from the school for the big city, and changing her name to Christina. Kernell favors subtlety in both writing and acting, allowing the face of her astonishing lead actress, Lene Cecilia Sparrok (in her acting debut), convey more than mere words could ever do. The film co-stars Maj-Doris Rimpi as the older Ella-Marja confronted with her past when her younger sister dies, Mia Sparrok as the sister, and Hanna Alström as the teacher who encourages and then betrays Ella-Marja. Also in the cast are Katarina Blind and Andreas Kundler. Kaernell directed from her own script, based on her short film, Stoerre Vaerie. This is her feature film debut. It was awarded the Europa Cinemas Label Award and the Fedeora Award.