The festival-travelling Sami Blood is a stirring coming-of-age drama from director Amanda Kernell, as it addresses an era in Scandinavian history in which the indigenous Sami community suffered at the helms of the state.
Mostly set in the 1930’s, Sami Blood follows teenager Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), who attends a boarding school where Sami children are forcibly taken by the Swedish state and placed into a school. There they are given a very basic education, taught Swedish, and forcibly prevented from speaking their native tongue. No future is seen for these children, as highlighted in a scene in which the teacher tells Elle-Marja that ‘her kind’ are made for working in this land and can’t handle city living. They are paraded around in their regional dress, a move that only isolates them further.
Sami Blood doesn’t surprise us in the plot; we know from the start of the film that Elle-Marja leaves this world and seeks the ‘Swedish way of life’. The framing device deployed here is in fact largely based on the short film that inspired Sami Blood, Northern Great Mountain – almost to the point that the shots are identical. In the short and feature, an elderly Elle-Marja goes back to her homeland for her sister’s funeral and pretends not to speak the language, though the shame of her denial weighs heavily.
What Sami Blood is able to achieve is a rather sobering portrayal of the impossible decision Elle-Marja faces: receive an education and nice life, or stay true to her values and remain home. Director Amanda Kernell keeps a tight focus on her protagonist, and that’s the film’s best feature. Sparrok is a revelation and the true highlight of this film. She imbues Elle-Marja with a very subtle assertiveness, constantly stepping forward no matter how terrified. This is a teenager willing to strike out alone and venture into the world she has almost no knowledge of. Cream cakes and gymnastics is new; even speaking Swedish is a novelty.
Although the camera does pull back, most of the film is close on Sparrok’s face, adjusting the frame to highlight how she feels in a particular situation. Throughout the film, one of the most continuous images is her hair, something Elle-Marja fusses over like any other young girl, and throughout the film as she leans towards Swedish life, so her hair changes to suit the new world. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail that only makes the character more understandable for the audience.
Overall, Sami Blood is a beautiful portrayal of Elle-Marja, and it highlights the issues surrounding this colonisation period without sounding preachy. Rather, it focuses in on one particular person and the choices she has to make based on a terrible circumstance she is in.