Sami Blood : Director Amanda Kernell tells the story of Elle-Marja, a 14-year-old girl who is removed from her nomadic, reindeer-herding Sàmi family and sent to a special school in 1930s Northern Sweden.
The film broaches a little-known but unfortunately universal subject. While most Swedes are likely familiar with this period of their national history, it had never occurred to me that the history of the Lapps (or Sàmi people) would so closely resemble the history of First Nations people in my own country of Canada. Many folks here are still struggling to grasp the devastating effect that residential schools had on an entire generation of people who were forcibly separated from their families and then mistreated and taught to hate their own culture. Likewise, Elle-Marja’s experience at the boarding school is culturally traumatizing, as she and her younger sister face both institutional objectification and more overt forms of humiliation and punishment.
Lene Cecilia Sparrok gives a mesmerizing performance as young Elle-Marja. So much can be gleaned from the look in her eye or the shape of her cheek. Even her braided hair tells a story. And it is especially heartbreaking to watch her features being examined and measured by a visiting “expert” or the village boys degrade her looks, because she is undeniably a beautiful, luminous presence in every frame. Both Sparrok and Maj-Doris Rimpi, who plays Elle-Marja at age 78, heartbreakingly convey a sense of deep internal conflict as Elle-Marja longs to pass as a “normal” Swede and considers leaving her culture, her traditions, and even her beloved younger sister behind.
Much of the film’s power comes from what remains unsaid. The most important moments feature characters who say one thing while conveying something else. A schoolteacher who says encouraging words while stopping a young girl’s ambition in its tracks; a group of young anthropology students who revel in Sàmi culture with enthusiasm bordering on mockery; the silent push-pull of family members who know they’re being betrayed but still love the betrayer. It is in these moments of emotional complexity that the film really shines.