Screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017
Amanda Kernell’s debut feature film highlights the impact of colonialist racism on a young Sámi girl, exploring the social and political in a moving and personal way. The Sámi people are indigenous to Sápmi – Northern Scandinavia and the North Eastern tip of Russia.
Elle Marja doesn’t want to be Sámi. This is hardly surprising considering the routine humiliation and racist abuse she faces as a ‘dirty Lapp’ at her Sámi boarding school in the 1930s. The children, including her and her younger sister, are considered lesser beings by the white Swedes around them. They are seen as curios, as objects of study, by the elite who teach in and visit their school. Allowed to express certain more palatable aspects of their culture – such as their traditional dress – they are forbidden from speaking their own language (southern Sámi) or expressing themselves in other ways. For example, Elle Marja warns her sister not to yoik (traditional throat singing) at school.
During one particularly difficult scene, a professor visits the school to study the children, without any explanation of what will happen to them or why. Their facial features are measured, and they are forced to strip naked and photographed with their hands on their heads. In the lead role, newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok is fantastic. The film uses many close-ups, especially in this scene, allowing the camera to linger on her reactions and reveal a quiet determination, evident through her facial expressions. This claustrophobia is in contrast to the sweeping wide-angle shots of the beautiful North of Sweden.
Elle Marja makes her escape to Uppsala in the hope of a better life. However, she still faces racism, in a perhaps more subtle form of exoticisation by anthropology students, who ask her to yoik at a dinner party despite her obvious reluctance to do so.
Sámi Blood is a complex film which tackles indigenous experiences with delicate nuance. This is also a film about family, especially sisterhood, capturing the complexities of the relationship between the two in a sensitive way. Sámi Blood does not presume to have an answer to the difficult problems it raises around assimilation vs preservation of culture, and instead recognises the multiplicity of reactions that indigenous people can have to them. That’s not to say that the film isn’t angry though: it rails against the numerous disastrous top-down policies about – but without – the Sámi people. This is a must-see as it brings to light this treatment of an overlooked minority in Europe (whose existence may be unfamiliar to a British audience) with sharp clarity.