Sami Blood plaits a rarely evoked time (1930’s), place (Sweden), and story into the screen. Elle-Marja, a young Sámi girl, with a toughness seemingly axiom to her people, desires something new for herself after she’s exposed to the racism (including a racial biology exam) pressed upon her at boarding school. She flees her reindeer herding responsibilities in hopes of assimilating into the Urban Swedish way found in Uppsala. Is there a price to be paid? A betrayal to pay for? Is she liberated, or is she still anchored by her past?
Writer/Director Amanda Kernell was kind enough to lend me her time on these and other questions in regards to her directorial debut SAMI BLOOD, which won her her the Best Young Director award at the Venice Film Festival, and which has played at nearly all the names: Sundance, Berlin, TIFF, Tokyo International Film Festival, and was primed to screen at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood the night of the interview.
The film features a gamut of excellent non-actors. Its star, Lene Cecilia Sparrok, who’d never acted before, took best actor at Tokyo International Film Festival, putting her amongst such veteran names as Helena Bonham Carter and Rachel Ward.
How did you nurture strong performances out of young non-actors?
I wanted, preferably, two real sisters. Because this is a story about sisterhood in a way, and what you sacrifice to get a better life. In this case, that thing’s your sister, which is a great loss. I wanted them to speak South Sámi language, because there’s only [approx.] 500 fluent speakers, and it’s the one that I speak [laughs]. I wanted them to be girls raised in Reindeer herding, because I wanted them to be able to use a knife, to know the craft, to handle reindeer etc. It’s a difficult craft, it takes a very long time to learn. Most teenage girls cannot handle knives.
And then I wanted to find someone that was the Katniss Everdeen of Sámi speakers. Because the older women in my family have this amazing strength. Like they never break. They have this integrity and dignity. There’s a saying that they’re made out of Titan, like some kind of unbreakable material.
Then somebody told me, pretty early on, if you want the Katniss Everdeen of the Sámi region that’s Lene Cecilia Sparrok. I filmed all teenage girls speaking the language directly. Most people don’t speak it fluently because of the politics we had. Most Sámi people don’t speak it because our parents or grandparents had chosen not to teach the language to their kids because it wasn’t allowed in schools. It was easier to assimilate and become completely Swedish in most cases.
In working with them — they are really good. It was important to me that it wasn’t cute. There are many traps in making a period film like this. It can become a little stiff in language. And I wanted it to be raw, I wanted it to be as violent and as beautiful as it feels to grow up — and not cute. I also wanted to get away from the Pocahontas stereotypes you can fall into, I didn’t want to make like a postcard of Lappland.
These are really tough girls. They’re boarding school kids. Many of the kid actors are going to Sámi boarding schools. So when they got the part, the two sisters, Mia and Lene Cecilia Sparrok, they said ‘Oh we can be in this film, but we can’t cry, so if you want someone to cry you should go look for someone else.’ [laughs]
Because you cannot show your weakness if you’re in boarding school. If you lay in the grass and start crying no one is going to pick you up. Also, reindeer herding is one of the hardest jobs there are. It’s very dangerous and a lot of people die doing it. You fall through the ice, get caught under a snowmobile, get ran over by a reindeer — there’s also a lot of suicide. So you have to be tough. You’re like a lonely cowboy.
I told them that in film you can fake it, you can put something in your eyes to make it look like you’re crying. But they were like “We don’t do fake. If it hurts it should hurt.” So that’s how we did it [laughs]. They wanted the real thing. There’re fights with knives and everything, and they wanted it to be real. So I kind of had to stop that a little bit because it could become pretty dangerous.
But they were like “No, No, No! I want it to hurt!” [laughs]
In rehearsals was it mostly a matter of getting them to be comfortable on screen with the characters they, in some ways, already were?
Well, Lene Cecilia Sparrok in real life works in Reindeer herding. She just finished high school and she works with her father. So she says she had a hard time understanding why Elle-Marja would leave. Even though, this story’s so common. It’s not told in film or outside of the Sámi community, but within it and I think within all indigenous communities and other minorities, it is common. Many people leave and sever ties with their background.
So, of course, she knows that intellectually, but she couldn’t understand that because there’s another sort of pride today in the Sámi culture.On the other end she knows how it is to be a teenage girl, so this sort of self-hatred that the main character internalizes — she knows what it’s like to want a different body than the one you have. I think all teenagers know that feeling.
So in the racial biology exam, with the nude photography, she said: “Oh, well that feels just like when you go to the swimming pool at school, and people look at you, and you feel like they don’t like what they see & you don’t like what you are.” Then you become just your body. There’s a lot of universal things like that to relate to in the film.
Is Elle-Marja’s character searching for another life in spite of her internalized self-hatred, or out of a genuine curiosity for the lifestyle?
It’s kinda up to you, but I think it’s both. I don’t think it’s that easy. Do you leave because you want to go somewhere else? Or do you leave because you don’t want to be where you are? Also, is that a strong decision? Or a weak one? I had that question for a long time, but I don’t think it should be put that way. I think it’s maybe both, but it’s really hard to leave the community you’re from. Can you free yourself from the body you’re born into, the culture, and family? And if you do where do you belong then?
I mean it’s a liberating thought if you can, but maybe not fully.
Is Elle-Marja’s end a tragic one?
Oh, I don’t want to say that! I’m not telling you! [laughs]
There’s a general shift in tone upon entering the town. Formally, how did you go about approaching it differently?
Yes, it’s different in many ways. In the soundtrack — but it’s also because she has a fascination. Like we’re with her. I wanted to make a film where the camera and we as an audience are in the same breadth as her. So you get a real-time experience like you’re with her in the room, or you’re almost her. I think that’s as close as you can get to becoming another person. We should be interested in what she’s interested in. So it was important for me to make an inside perspective and not the postcard from Lappland. I mean, a lot of people come and make documentaries with reindeer in the sunset, and this exotic environment. But it’s not exotic to her. She grew up there. It’s not new. So it shouldn’t be to us. It just is.
But then when she goes to Uppsala to this botanical garden, with pyramid formed trees, the cakes they’re eating, and everything that’s new — We should be discovering this city, Sweden, and the Western society, with her and be fascinated. It’s like paradise in a way to her.
But it’s interesting I think to see this society from the outside.
When Elle-Marja first enters Upssala, the camera recedes backwards away from her, when it has always typically followed along. What’s this move suggest about her decision?
There’s some suspense in that, a threat I think. It’s 4 am in Sweden, almost like a midnight sun, the light and everything is so beautiful. There’s flowers, big buildings and statues…
It sounds strange saying this but, she comes out of the darkness of the tunnel and into the light [laughs] of the city. But we track back, and it’s one of my favorite shots because you get this feeling in your stomach and you’re like whoa, this is not just good. There’s something a little bit… There’s a dissonance that says something else. It’s a feeling.
We’re almost her, but we’re also ourselves watching this today, maybe we’re older and have more pride… But also we know this time period now, after the Nazis, we know that this city is not just a paradise to her. It won’t be easy.
The film is obviously personal, did you learn anything about yourself or your Sámi Heritage in making the film?
It’s also personal in the sense that I’ve also been a teenage girl. [laughs] I didn’t go to boarding school, but all my cousins went to Sámi boarding school. But these things like trying to fit in, how much you change yourself to fit in — and what if you change yourself, and they like you, but it really isn’t you. All these questions… I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to yoik at parties when people discover you can sing, and you feel a bit like a circus animal.
So it’s not just historical. It’s not an educational film about our history, it’s more a physical and violent coming of age story that should look like and feel like it does to grow up.
…So what did I learn about myself? I guess I feel privileged to be able to do this and to have this job. I think what film can do is make you less lonely with your thoughts. You know? I want to make films that are hard to talk about because maybe you can’t put them into words but you can feel it. Film’s about life and secrets and shame and betrayals that are difficult to talk about. These open wounds that I had to face in my life anyway. Maybe they’re a little different to you and I’s experience in little ways… But people watch the film, and suddenly they realize they have these thoughts too. You’re not the only one in the world. To make a film, to me, is to scream all these questions you have out into the universe. When people see it you start to get answers. People talk about it. Maybe they wouldn’t otherwise.
So, of course, I learned a lot through that. I also learned a lot from the older generation. The film is a declaration of love to an older generation. Both those who left it behind and those who stayed. I’ve learned a lot through interviewing them, about what they liked, why they left, or what they miss. If you left this old life can you ever create a new home? Will the home you’re born in always be home?
They’re tough questions.
Yeah! I really wonder… I mean, I moved to another country, a lot of people move away from where they’re from. But will you ever really feel that that’s you’re home?
These questions… does the film provide an answer to them? Or simply ask them?
It’s a take on them. But I think what I realized in making the film is that we have to consider our past more and more. We are not free from it. We might not know it, or even be aware of it. But it’s still in our mindset, and I’m quite sure about that.
This colonization of our mind. How we think about ourselves and others. Other people of different cultures, assimilation, integration… a lot of these thoughts I think are connected to a time where racial biology was a science. Most people are not aware of the science back then, what was said, and what was said as fact, but I don’t think we’re yet free from that. I think the film is turning more and more into the 1930’s. How we talk about assimilation & integration, how we talk about the other, how we divide people… I’m happy I get to travel around the world with the film and take part in those conversations.
Are these questions that’ll take root in your later films?
Well… I make very personal films so they’re always a declaration of love to someone close to me. They’ve always been trying to investigate what it would be like to be them. They’re always about family secrets or betrayal. Or in Sami Blood, I’m not sure if it’s a betrayal. Is it just to free yourself? I guess they’re always around these themes. I think that’s more my throughline than say the Sámi community. I mean I love shooting there, it’s amazing to be able to work with the elements of nature, this place I’m from, the midnight sun, and the very cold winter… Dogs, and reindeer, and mosquitos [laughs]… Fog and fire…
I like that. This uncontrollable life.
This is an obligatory question, but I am curious to know what films and filmmakers influence your work.
Hmm. I am inspired by a lot of people and I admire directors who do what I can’t. So they may not be a direct inspiration because I’m not making the same sort of films. I’m more admiring the fact that I don’t know how to do what they do.
But I’m very much inspired by Lynne Ramsay because I think she’s a great storyteller in pictures. I was also so impressed by Moonlight and the way it tells its story in images, how it tells through film –when a picture can say everything with very little dialogue. I’m always impressed by those directors who work in that way.
And in Sami Blood – to answer an earlier question you had about aesthetics and how they change in the film – I wanted to capture, and I think this is interesting because I think you can feel it in the picture, something called third space, which is the idea that when you transfer to a new community, it’s difficult to do so, and you get stuck in this place called third space. So you’re not a part of your old space and you’re not a part of the new. You’re in this no man’s land. They say it also can create an anger because you are without power. You want to get out of your third space. So some pictures in the film are her in this third space, like when she’s on the train and she’s not sitting with the other passengers… Where do you go from there? Where do you get out of that space? I don’t know, but I was excited when I learned the term, and I think it helped me understand this generation more. I think you can feel it, you don’t need the academic term for it, and I think it’s something many people have felt before.
I appreciate Amanda’s thorough consideration of the questions, and her willingness to find the answers. Catch Sami Blood as it does its Festivals runs around the world.