Director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sámi Blood, based on her grandmother’s life, offers audiences a story about identity and persecution, an education on a culture rarely seen on American screens (Frozen doesn’t count) and an excellent performance by a talented young actress.
We meet Christina as an old woman, avoiding other guests when her son and granddaughter bring her to her estranged sister’s funeral. We soon realize she’s prejudiced toward the Sámi people—her people, indigenous to the northernmost portions of Europe. She even lies to a group of women she meets outside the company of her family, saying she’s from southern Sweden. When Christina refuses to accompany her son and granddaughter to a Sámi ritual, the story shifts from present day to the 1930s, a time when Christina goes by Elle-Marja and attends a boarding school for Sámi children.
The teacher forces 14-year-old Elle-Marja (Lene Cecila Sparrok) and the other children to speak Swedish, not their native tongue. Elle-Marja’s excitement over a visitor from a Swedish town coming to the school turns to horror when she undergoes his unethical medical examination, designed to support theories of Sámi inferiority. Outside the school, a group of Swedish boys harass Elle-Marja and her sister Njenna (Sparrok’s actual sister, Mia Erika Sparrok). The harassment eventually turns to violence, and Elle-Marja is denied when she asks her teacher for an opportunity to advance her education elsewhere. Feeling suffocated by her life, Elle-Marja escapes. She becomes Christina, a Swede. But we soon realize that while the Sámi girl can run away, you can’t take the Sámi out of the girl.
Along with its uncomfortable scenes, this coming-of-age film has lighter moments: sisters teasing each other, a first kiss, a first time wearing lipstick, beautiful landscapes and aspects of the Sámi culture. Lene Cecila Sparrok’s joys and sorrows as Elle-Marja/Christina elicit those same emotions in the viewer. We can only hope to see more from her, along with Kernell, at future festivals.
Sámi Blood was a winner at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival. Hopefully, it will be recognized as one of Sundance’s best films this year.
Saturday, Jan. 28, 9 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room