The first feature film by writer-director Amanda Kernell raises subject matter that should be more than a little familiar to Australians. This Swedish director’s moving debut set against a backdrop of the 1930s looks at a culture of which little is known beyond the borders of Scandinavia, one of oppression of the indigenous Sami folk. Look closer at the methods used – bullying, subjugation, re-education, segregation, belittlement – and you’ll understand why this might have struck a chord at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is again screening as part of ACMI’s summer schedule.
The story is that of Elle-Marja (played by the impressive Lene Cecilia Sparrok), a Sami teenager closer to adolescence than adulthood who makes the bold decision to forsake her family and heritage in favour of pursuing what is denied those of her ancestry – a comprehensive education and the enviably comfortable life enjoyed by her suppressors. Elle-Marja is a bright student in her remote Lapland school where she is forced to learn the Swedish language and suppress her native Sami tongue, but she is smart enough to realise that such a trajectory has limits. They might learn Swedish and sing songs proclaiming the unity of Sweden and the power of the same almighty God, but lip service doesn’t disguise the fact that, for mainstream Sweden at the time, the Sami are little more than an anthropological anomaly to be studied and subjugated.
Leaving behind her younger sister Njenna (Mia Erika Sparrok, also her sister in real life), Elle-Marja ventures out in disguise and under a new name to shake off the popularly perceived stigma of her descent. It is undoubtedly tiring and demoralising to be constantly looked at as if a museum exhibit and ladled with the scorn of open racism and ignorance, and anonymity is a kind of luxury she hasn’t known.
The unsentimental telling of this story, told partly in flashback as Elle-Marje (played as an elderly woman by Maj-Doris Rimpi) attends Njenna’s traditional Sami funeral in modern-day Sweden with her son and granddaughter, is unsettling but always insightful. Not only a snapshot of colonial oppression, it reveals the enduring disconnect between Sami culture and mainstream Sweden as Elle-Marje’s offspring embrace the Sami experience totally ignorant of the customs and, more notably, the emotional cost of Elle-Marje’s exile.
It is then fitting, in a film discussing the absent voice of Sami culture in Swedish discourse, that silence should be so harshly effective. Aided by stunning cinematography by Sophia Olsson showcasing Lapland surrounds, the film is always contemplative and much of the credit should go to the elder Sparrok’s mature performance for the devastating insights that the film imparts. We never need a monologue to see the wheels turning over in her head through her inscrutable gaze.
Elle-Marje’s exile is both intimate and indicative of the injustices of a much wider community, and Sparrok deftly conveys the journey of a girl whose stature is always frustratingly smaller than her ambition. There is an appealing arrogance in her willingness to break from the system that builds with each act of humiliation that tests her resolve, and despite these detractors there are also surprisingly tender moments as she comes to experience the small pleasures of growing up free from the constraints of stigma. But in that rabbit-in-the-headlights stare there is a vulnerability that can only lead to anxiety. Her uncertainty breeds a silence that allows others more powerful to impose their own assumptions, and that road has dangerous possibilities and is ripe for exploitation.
These ingredients make for an inherently sad story. It celebrates the stubbornness of a young girl who knew she deserved better, but it more importantly condemns the institutionalised racism that drove her to abandon her family in pursuit of the dream. A devastating film and an important one.
Sami Blood screens exclusively at ACMI from 27th December.