[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on January 26.]
Sami Blood (Sameblod) is the one film I missed at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival that I’ve been waiting to see. It’s finally been released for streaming on Google Play and iTunes, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though I’m nearly 100% of German ancestry (as far as I know), I will watch anything that comes from Ireland or Scandinavia. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scandinavian crime dramas are at the top of my list: see the Department Q films on Netflix, of which the newest one is under production. And though The Snowman—which I’ve not seen—did not get good reviews, the Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbø are excellent.)
I was only superficially aware of the Sami people in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and part of Russia. So I didn’t know about the prejudice and racism to which they were subjected (always called “Laplanders” or “Lapps” by the Swedes in the film). The film is the story, primarily, of two sisters (played by real-life sisters Lene Cecilia and Mia Erika Sparrok) who attend a boarding school for Sami children, where they learn to speak “proper Swedish,” and are compelled to undergo humiliating examination of their facial and bodily features, which seem to parallel some of the attempts to assimilate Native peoples in the United States.
The film takes place in the 1930s, at the height of eugenics’ popularity around the world (before Hitler and the Nazis’ zeal for purity exposed the evil undergirding the “science” of eugenics). One boy even mocks the Sami students to his friends by saying that they look the way they do because they are at a lower stage of evolution. The contrast between Elle-Marje and the Swedes around her is contrasted strikingly in nearly every scene by their height difference.
The racial and prejudicial elements, along with the isolation of the Sami, push Elle-Marje to seek any and every opportunity to escape to a more respectable (to the Swedes) life. Her sister tells her that she only cares about herself, and it’s not until the end of the film that she realizes how much she’s sacrificed on the altar of her flight from herself. While probably not etymologically defensible, the Swedish “sameblod” looks like the English “same blood.” How far can a person escape her own blood?
No matter what Elle-Marje does—from taking her teacher’s name for her own, to dressing in stolen Swedish dresses, to refusing to sing the traditional songs of her people—no one wants to let her forget who she is. She assumes as true the criticisms of the Sami by others, and is uninterested in hearing any defense of her people or land. The only thing she holds on to is her father’s marking knife, which becomes a symbol both of her connection and alienation from her own people.
While this is certainly an old story—the struggle, on the one hand, between genetics and history and, on the other, a desire to escape the formative for the self-formative—this film presents that story from a setting likely unknown to most people outside Scandinavia. What makes someone who she is? How much can a person actually be self-made?
Elle-Marje (under her assumed pseudonym), at least, lives the majority of her life (mostly omitted from the film itself) successfully apart from her upbringing and culture. But the initial scenes—where the unsteadiness of the camera indicates how unmoored, rootless, and disconnected she actually is—as well as the final scenes, suggest that she may not have realized what she was giving up.
However one interprets Elle-Marje’s internal and dissonant struggle, this is an affecting and beautifully shot film that is worth your time.