Director: Amanda Kernell
Runtime: 110 minutes
When you think of Swedish cinema you don’t think once about how it reflects the Saami culture because truth is, it doesn’t. It took a young female director of Saami ethnicity to bring her own culture to cinematic life as she does in Sameblod (Sami Blood). Sameblod is a coming of age story loosely based on Kernell’s grandmother and stems from a short Kernell presented at Sundance in 2015. That film touched the Saami experience from the point of a view of an old woman who attends her sister’s funeral. For reasons left unknown (and therefore, unresolved), she distanced herself from her sister, and thus, from her own culture, adopting Swedish mannerisms and its language.
What we get in the full-length feature film is a more descriptive narration of the woman as a teenage girl living in what was then known as Lapland. In Sweden, Saami’s have little choice (even now) for advancement; in the 1930s, when the story is based, they were even considered a medical anomaly, presenting smaller than normal brains (according to then-scientists) and due to that, unqualified to live among the Swedes as “normal”. They could, however, go to boarding schools (as Elle-Marja and her sister Njenna do, but the chances of educational advancement is basically nil.
While at the boarding school, Elle-Marja’s identity gets stripped to its bare essentials from the get-go — an early scene of a man taking pictures of her naked body has the cruelty of the sound of lashes, something here in America we’re too acquainted with if we look into our relation to slavery. As her time at the boarding school grows longer, Elle-Marja is forced at one point to adopt a Swedish look in order not to appear out of place in a gathering. There she meets a handsome boy to whom she takes a liking to; however, her escapade results in a terrible backlash that forces her to make a decision and changer her life forever.
Even when she does find herself in a somewhat better place, Elle-Marja’s identity is never out of the question: students at another school passive-aggressively view her as an object, a clown, and Elle-Marja comes to the realization that in a world where being part of the elite is the norm, it also makes it impossible for people like her, born to a different culture, to fit in. Sameblod is a story that will resonate with many cultures — it indeed has a universal appeal — because of how we treat those we see and deem as marginalized. Kernell clearly has enormous empathy for her own lead character who, even when she gets put through the wringer, comes through as a survivor all her own in a poignant but utterly desolate final sequence. A striking debut.