Amanda Kernell discusses her exquisite feature debut, “a coming-of-age story, with joik and blood, about a girl with a knife,” and how it illuminates South Sami history.
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“I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story, with joik and blood, about a girl with a knife,” said Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell. Her exquisite first feature, Sami Blood, about a South Sami girl named Elle Marja, was one of the best films at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Samis are Sweden’s only Indigenous people of the north, traditionally reindeer herders who live in the mountains. As a young teenager in the 1930s, Elle Marja gets shipped off to a mandatory Swedish boarding school. There, she discovers a love of learning and books and decides to abandon her heritage for life in the city.'I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story, with joik and blood, about a girl with a knife.' - Amanda KernellClick To Tweet
The film begins in the present day, when Elle Marja is an elderly woman, attending the funeral for her sister whom she hasn’t seen in decades. Elle Marja now speaks of the Samis with derision, as primitive people she wants nothing to do with. “I’m from a Sami family,” Kernell explained. “I have a Swedish mother and a South Sami father. But some of the elders in my family, they really want nothing to do with Sami people. They speak quite harshly and badly about them, but they are Sami themselves. I’d always known that they grew up with having Sami as their mother tongue, not speaking Swedish at all as children, in the traditional way of living.”
“But now, they have other names, first names and surnames, and have another life,” Kernell added. “They want nothing to do with their siblings, their old life, and their old identity. So I was wondering what happened? If you change your name, your language, your way of behaving, can you really become another person or are you still the same old person inside? Where does this shame and anger come from? What does it do to you to cut all ties with your past, your family, and your culture — full assimilation?”What does it do to you to cut all ties with your past, your family, and your culture — full assimilation?Click To Tweet
In 1930s Sweden, the Sami people were considered to be an inferior race. Children of reindeer herders, Sami children, were forced to attend Swedish boarding schools — not unlike Canada’s own residential schools — where they learned Swedish and were subject to a “lower level of education.” At the time, Sweden had created the world’s first State Institute of Race Biology to study the Samis whom they considered “short-headed” (Aryans are “long-headed”). Their “so-called research into phrenology inspired the Germans quite a lot”, and the boarding schools were ground zero for this research.
“It was called ‘A Lapp should be a Lapp’ politics,” Kernell explained. “They believed that the [Sami people’s] brains weren’t developed for life in the city or in civilization. [Sami children] would go away from home to these residential schools and only speak Swedish — they would beat you if you spoke Sami — many of them not knowing Swedish beforehand, and then come back home with a family that doesn’t speak Swedish. This politics makes no sense.” Sami children would also be indoctrinated with Christianity and Swedish culture. When they were sent back to their families, they felt alienated and ashamed of their origins. “They also believed that the Samis are the only ones who can actually make use of these mountains and reindeer herding. But a hundred years ago, hotels would have signs that said ‘No Lapps’ or ‘No Lapplanders’.”
“I always wondered what it would do to you as a person knowing that you’re an inferior race, that you’re underdeveloped,” recalled Kernell. “That’s your body. You can’t change that. At that time, the science, you could read that in our encyclopedia: how Samis were. Their hair quality would be different. They would walk in a strange way. They would be like children. I made the film as a declaration of love to this older generation, to those who stayed and those who left. I think both choices are hard ones to make. You have to be strong to leave, but you have to be strong to stay.”I always wondered what it would do to you as a person knowing that you’re an inferior race, that you’re underdeveloped.Click To Tweet
Because the Samis have an oral tradition, “history hasn’t really been written from the Sami perspective, the Indigenous perspective,” said Kernell. “We never talk about this in Sweden. We don’t know it.” There has never been a film in the South Sami language. The few Sami films that do exist — there have been about one per decade since the 1980s — are North Sami stories. “I feel great responsibility to make things right, to not make my family ashamed that I got it wrong.” This meant Kernell had to do extensive research to prepare for the film. She did a lot of personal interviews to gather stories as fodder for the film.
At the same time, Kernell “didn’t want [the film] to be educational or didactic. I try to correct people when they say it’s a film about Sami people or about our residential schools, because it’s not. That’s the environment, but it’s about something else: shame, internalized racism, and all these existential questions of growing up. It’s about the colonization of your mind and the colonization of your body. But I think it does something when the details are right, the authenticity of that.”'It’s about the colonization of your mind and the colonization of your body.'Click To Tweet
The State Institute of Race Biology “used these schools quite a lot for their exams and naked photographies. There’s thousands of naked photographs of Sami children. But all the grown ups, they travelled around the North to get them, too. There’s nine positions there’s supposed to stand in naked, to take these pictures, to do this research.” Part of Kernell’s research for the film involved going to the University Library in Sweden where you can take out copies of the books that were published with the original photographs. “With the kids, it was convenient, because they were gathered. So they could develop new methods. They tried, for a while, a blood serum that would change colour and show your race. They did these gynecology exams. They had a lot of ideas, but they couldn’t prove any of their research, obviously. “
The most harrowing scene in Sami Blood involves one of these state-sponsored exams of the children. “I thought a lot about making this race biology exam. It had to be there, because that’s a part of what happened. It’s a part of this dark chapter in Swedish history.” One of the challenges was to avoid traumatizing her actors the way that Sami children were traumatized by the historical exams. Kernell didn’t want to be exploitative in her depiction either. The race biology books appear briefly in the film, but Kernell and her team recreated these herself since the originals did not have consenting subjects.I made the film as a declaration of love to this older generation, to those who stayed and those who left.Click To Tweet
“Since this is an open wound, we talked a lot about how to shoot it. You don’t actually really see anything on their bodies. You see the back. But of course, most of the children that are in the film, and in this race biology exam, everyone had grandparents or great grandparents that went through these exams. You can read their skull measurements and all their measurements in these books that you can borrow from the library. Most of the kids [in the film] wanted to be really measured. They wanted to know what it feels like. I wanted to know that myself. My family is also in that book.”
In the 1930s, “Sweden’s biggest photo exhibition was Swedish folktypes: a lot of pictures of Sami people, but also of other types, like Aryan, the Nordic types, which are shot differently. They’re always clean, in a studio, with nice lighting. Samis and also immigrants, and people with other skin colours, would be shot dirty sometimes, with not very nice lighting, and not have them comb their hair, very intentionally. They really tried to make people look superior in some pictures. I didn’t want to do that in the film. On the other hand, [Elle Marja] looks up to her teacher. So I wanted her to be like, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful and blonde! Such a lovable Nazi woman!’”
Kernell began the casting process two years before shooting because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to find a young actress who spoke the language and knew the traditions. She “met most teenage girls who speak this language. There are only 500 fluent South Sami speakers in the world. It’s a really threatened language.” Fortunately, her Sami co-producer had met a young South Sami actress, Lene Sparrok, who lived in Norway. Kernel recalled him telling her that Lene is “really tough. She’s a girl you would believe would survive in the city not knowing anyone and still look like fourteen.”
“I write a manifesto for every film, with the goals and methods,” Kernell noted. “For this one, it was really important not to make a postcard from the Sami region. Of course, the mountains are beautiful, but the film is not about that. The camera should not be exoticizing or fascinated about that. I wanted to make a subjective film through Elle Marja’s perspective. The camera doesn’t know more than her. We can only be where she is. We wanted the camera to be in the same breath as her. So it’s more vivid and alive. It shouldn’t be stiff and black and white in the ‘30s because that’s not how you remember your life, as an old archive film from the ‘30s. The lenses, it’s actually more cold and distant when she’s old.”We wanted the camera to be in the same breath as her. So it’s more vivid and alive.Click To Tweet
“Nothing in the aesthetic choices should point to the time when this is taking place. We would pick everything that would be timeless, if possible — still true to the year, but everything that could be the ‘30s and today would meet in language, costumes, hairstyles. You can very easily get charmed when you make period pieces. Did the milk packages really look like this? This is beautiful. How did we get hold of this piece of antiquity?” Kernell wanted to make sure the fact that the film was a period piece wasn’t the focus of the film. She wanted viewers “to be more emotionally involved. I wanted people to have this real time experience if possible. There are some scenes that are not cut. It’s just one take. I wanted to take away everything that was not necessary so we wouldn’t be distracted by beautiful shots or details from the ‘30s.”
This article was originally published on February 8, 2017, as part of our 2017 Sundance Film Festival coverage.