If you’re anything like me, the only thing you know about Swedish Lappland and the indigenous people who live there, known as the Sami, Lapps, or Laplanders, is that they herd reindeer. In fact, the region’s tortured history of abuse and institutional racism by the Swedish government towards the Sami – whose ancestral lands encompass parts of not just Sweden, but Norway, Finland, and Russia as well – isn’t even that well known in Sweden. And that’s just one of the many reasons why Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s feature debut Sami Blood is so revelatory.
Not only has this story never been told before, but Sami Blood is also the first narrative film to feature a primarily Sami cast speaking the Sami language onscreen. And considering the fact that traditional Sami is only spoken by roughly 500 people on the planet today, that’s kind of a big deal, not just for fans of the burgeoning indigenous cinema movement, but for fans of great, beautifully-told dramas the world over.
Set primarily in Sweden in the 1930s – a time when many rural Sami children were sent to restrictive, state-run boarding schools where they were routinely abused and subjected to horribly-invasive social-Darwinist biology exams – Sami Blood opens in the present day with an old woman named Elle Marja (Maj-Doris Rimpi) heading back to her Sami hometown after many years for the funeral of her younger sister. Bitter and angry at being dragged to the funeral by her son and young granddaughter, Elle Marja has no interest in reconnecting with the Sami elders and family members at the service and heads to a nearby hotel instead. There, Elle Marja flashes back to her sad, troubled early years at the nearby boarding school with her sister Njenna (Mia Erika Sparrok).
Played in the flashbacks by gifted Sami newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok, the young Elle Marja suffers unspeakable racism and abuse at school and grows to hate her own ethnic identity to such an extent that she actually decides to abandon it entirely, sever all ties with her past, and start a new life as a Swede in the city. Leaving behind her sister, widowed mother, and the ruggedly-beautiful Sami homelands of her youth, Elle Marja sets forth to become someone else. But that path too proves to be riddled with heartache and loss. And in the end, Elle Marja comes to realize that no matter how far she runs from it, her past, like the soulful chant of a traditional Sami yoik (song), will haunt her dreams forevermore.
A deep, soul-stirring drama about the steep price many immigrants and indigenous people pay when they abandon one cultural identity for another, Sami Blood may be set in the past, but Elle Marja’s efforts to assimilate at any cost could not be more timely. Especially in today’s increasingly xenophobic socio-political climate where cultural identity and indigenous traditions are often abandoned at will in an effort to conform to prevailing societal norms.
When Sami Blood screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year Kernell revealed that she had based much of Elle Marja’s story on real-life tales from her own Sami family, but what is probably most remarkable about the film is how Kernell is able to make such a personal, culturally-specific story feel universal. Some will love Elle Marja and many more will hate her, but anyone who’s ever longed to fit in or belong will surely relate to her deeply-moving voyage of self-discovery.
Currently making the rounds at film festivals around the globe, Sami Blood is playing throughout the month of May on select Emirates, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Turkish Airlines flights worldwide.