Every year, the Yellowknife International Film Festival presents films exposing prejudices the marginalized are forced to endure. From the First Nations to LBGTQ communities, audiences are forced to confront the oppression inflicted on minorities in the past and present. What happens when one of the oppressed internalizes those prejudices? That subject is at the centre of Sami Blood, a portrait of a young Sami girl who rejects her culture to try to fit in with 1930s Sweden.
Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is a young Sami girl who follows her family’s tradition of tending to a herd of reindeer. But like many Sami kids of the 1930s, she and her sister Njenna (Mia Sparrok) are sent to a nomad school, where they forced to learn the Swedish way of living. It’s in this environment that Elle-Marja thrives, learning the Swedish anthem by heart and impressing the teacher (Hanna Alstrom). Such success has Elle-Marja dreaming of a higher education in Uppsala. But she’s subjected to bigotry from locals sticking their noses at children like her and teenage boys throwing slurs at her. The final straw is when the teacher claims she won’t last in Uppsala because she is of a “lower evolution.” Fed up with the oppression, she rejects her heritage, runs away to Uppsala and enrolls in a school under the name Christina. But in her attempts to fit in, she drives away her family and her culture.
The scenes of the nomad schools bring up traumatic memories of residential schools. There are many parallels between schools, including kids being whipped for speaking their native language. Though judging by this film, nomad schools don’t seem as bad residential schools. Kids were still allowed to wear their Gaktis and see their family during specific time periods. But the lesser of two evils is still evil. Behind her smile, the teacher still regards the children as lesser beings, claiming they’re not mentally advanced for further education. And then there is the cringe inducing scene where the kids are subjected to a race biology experiment. Seeing Elle-Marja forced to strip naked for a photoshoot is hard to watch.
But that’s not the real focus of the film. What writer/director Amanda Kernell’s interested in how people turn the bigotry on themselves. At first, Elle-Marja resists the bigotry, standing up to bullies. But as she sees local adults look down on Sami kids, Elle-Marja starts to feel ashamed for her culture. The praise from her teacher only draws contempt from her classmates, furthering her shame. Kernell proves herself a worthy visual storyteller through subtle symbolism, from Elle-Marja smoking cigarettes to her trying to dance with blonde-haired, blue-eyed gymnasts. It helps to have a stunning young actress like Sparrok, whose expressive face reveals her character’s shame without uttering a word.
Kernell begins and ends the film with Elle-Marja in the present, where she has longed ingrained herself into the identity of Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi). We see a bitter, chain-smoking old woman who regards her heritage with contempt. With strong insistence by her son, she is forced to return home for her sister’s funeral. In these uncomfortable moments, Elle-Marja continues to push her family away, despite her son’s attempts to get her to reconnect with her heritage. The opening scene is just as powerful as the flashback scenes, but there are a couple problems. After the opening scene, the film seems to completely forget about the scenes in the present time. When it comes back the present day, it comes off as a storytelling equivalent of whiplash. Plus, the ending comes off as rushed.
I also felt like the story didn’t feel incomplete. We see Elle-Marja as a child and an old lady, but I imagine there must be many compelling moments in between. Did Njenna try to reconnect with her? How did Elle-Marja’s son find out about their heritage. Did he try to connect with his heritage? I don’t know about you, but I think this story could make a great miniseries. With a series of episodes, Kernell could use Elle-Marja’s life to showcase the history of Sami’s relations with Sweden, just like how Edgar Reitz used the character of Maria Simon to portray German history in Heimat.
With a soft touch, Amanda Kernell expands on her short film Stoerre Vaerie to bring us this quiet, yet heartbreaking tale of a child taught to turn her back on her own culture. Through subtle symbolism, nuanced performances and detailed history, Kernell presents those little social cues that twists a child’s mind to turn against her loved ones. Despite a few flaws in story structure, Sami Blood is an unforgettable film that will haunt the audience long after leaving the theatre.
 But since I don’t know much of Sami history, I can’t really judge accuracy.