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A 14-year-old Sami girl in 1930s Sweden tries to pass for a regular Swede in Sami Blood (Same Blod), the feature debut from Swedish-Sami writer-director Amanda Kernell. Bookended by material from her 2015 Sundance short Northern Great Mountain, which was set in the present, the film’s main narrative consists of one long flashback to the youth of the short’s protagonist at a special Sami boarding school in Lapland, where she realized that the Sami were treated as inferior beings. This makes the ambitious and enterprising young woman, beautifully embodied by young newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok, decide to ditch her traditional costume, language and ways and try to become a Swedish girl instead.
Though there’s not a single narrative surprise in this attractively assembled coming-of-age story, this should appeal to family audiences in the Nordic countries as well as festivals with a more mainstream sensibility. It had its world premiere in the Venice Days strand of the Venice Film Festival and will bow in Toronto in the Discovery section (clear parallels to white Canada’s treatment of its own native peoples will add local resonance there).
The film opens and closes on “Christina” (Maj Doris Rimpi), an elderly lady who balks at the idea of going to her sister’s funeral because it will force her to confront a past she’s been trying to forget since she was a teenage girl some eight decades earlier. At the funeral, she pretends she doesn’t speak Sami, only Swedish, and when people ask her where she’s from, she says she’s from southern Sweden.
Why she acts the way she does is explored in the film’s main body, which is set in the 1930s, when Sami children were sent to special boarding schools and the Swedish government thought they had different brains and were inferior beings. Christina was then still known as Ella-Marja (Sparrok) and the girl is introduced as she’s told by her mother (Katarina Blind), a widow and a reindeer herder, to take her younger sister (Mia Erika Sparrok, with the same dark tresses as her sister) to school “far away.”
Ella-Marja is a very good student and the kind-seeming teacher, Christina (Hanna Alstrom, white as snow), even gives her a book of poetry though she tells her student she’s “not supposed to.” Perhaps the woman has been softened by the fact the curious student has asked her what you need to know as a teacher — “Everything,” Christina says, before correcting herself: “A little bit of everything” — though perhaps it wasn’t clear to her that Ella-Marja was thinking of maybe becoming a school teacher herself. (This would have been impossible, as the Sami were taught some basics at schools set up specifically for them and were then expected to return to their reindeer-herding families).
Kernell, whose mother is Swedish and father is Sami, also wrote the screenplay of the film, which sticks very closely to Ella-Marja’s point of view throughout. This works well in the bookends made up of footage from Northern Great Mountain, in which the protagonist is old and wise — read: old and stubborn — but makes things more complicated in the scenes set in the past, because young Ella-Marja isn’t a big talker and her awareness of her otherness is something that dawns on the naive young woman only very gradually.
A painful visit to the school by a doctor, who has her photographed naked in front of the whole class and her features measured to find a pseudo-scientific explanation for the Sami’s perceived inferiority, must have been a traumatic experience for the young woman, made even more humiliating (or at least confusing) by the Swedish teenage boys outside, peeking in through the windows. But Kernell’s coolly observant direction here is a little too devoid of drama; it doesn’t quite feel like one of the defining moments that would help trigger her rash decision to not only abandon but actually deny her heritage and try to pass as a regular Swedish girl.
When Ella-Marja literally walks out of her school to go to Uppsala, a city she’s only heard about but where she might get a “normal” Swedish education and become a teacher, she also has to abandon her younger sister. But this choice, too, isn’t given quite enough emotional heft in the past to make her need to ask her sibling, whose funeral she’s being forced to attend in the present, for forgiveness. That said, Kernell’s preference for delicacy and understatement works well when it comes to her protagonist’s sexual awakening, which involves her meeting, wooing and then trying to rely on the kindness of a bourgeois pretty boy, Niklas (the deliciously named Julius Fleischanderl). He and his peers seem to be friendly and decent people, unlike the adults surrounding them, perhaps pointing to a future in which the Sami won’t be considered as a lesser part of Swedish society.
If audiences finally stick with Christina/Ella-Marja during her journey, it is in large part thanks to the charismatic Sparrok, who delivers a steely performance that manages to clearly convey her character’s intelligence and determination to get what she wants out of life in one way or another. And there’s not a false note in the ensemble opposite her, suggesting Kernell knows what she’s doing with the actors.
Sami Blood, shot over the summer, has all the trappings of a classical period piece, but thankfully, the film never feels musty. Instead, the director and her cinematographer, Sophia Olsson (taking over the baton from Petrus Sjovik, who shot the short), use the camera loosely; composer Kristian Eidnes has a minimalist and atmospheric score in store and editor Anders Skov’s work always feels brisk and alert even when there is not a whole lot of narrative incident to drive the action.
Production companies: Nordisk Film Production Sverige, Bautafilm, Digipilot, Nordisk Film Production, SVT
Cast: Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Mia Erika Sparrok, Maj Doris Rimpi, Julius Fleischanderl, Olle Sarri, Hanna Alstrom, Malin Crepin, Andreas Kundler, Ylva Gustafsson, Katarina Blind
Writer-Director: Amanda Kernell
Producer: Lars G. Lindstrom
Co-producers: Oskar Ostergren, Jim S. Hansen, Tomas Radoor, René Ezra, Agneta Perman
Directors of photography: Sophia Olsson, Petrus Sjovik
Production designer: Olle Remaeus
Costume designers: Viktoria Mattila, Sara Svonni
Editor: Anders Skov
Music: Kristian Eidnes
Casting: Jeanette Klintberg, Patricia Fjellgren
Sales: Level K
No rating, 110 minutes
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