I Am Sami: Kernell Examines Sweden’s Colonialist History in Coming-of-Age Drama
Sweden of the 1930s was not the sterling template of Scandinavian progression for which it is now revered and troubling elements concerning the country’s historical racial discrimination has not, for the most part, been generally acknowledged. Jan Troell’s 2012 film The Last Sentence revisits a period of turmoil from a decade when the monarchy was more concerned with maintaining neutrality under the onslaught of the rising Third Reich and the various political underpinnings which dictated such Fascist tendencies.
This sort of passivity usually engenders and empowers intolerance and bigotry, of Sweden was also guilty of. Sami-Swedish director Amanda Kernell uses the tried and true template of the coming-of-age drama for her debut Sami Blood, which explores a young Sami girl’s struggle to assimilate into the mainstream during the 1930s despite considerable oppression and systemic racism on the part of the Swedes. While structurally familiar in all its narrative beats, Kernell’s film is also inherently unique regarding not only the particular populous it represents, but sincerely affecting as a testament to the tribulations associated with the act of “passing.”
Reluctantly returning to Lapland to attend her sister’s funeral, the wizened Christina (Maj Doris Rimpi) recalls her distraught childhood of the 1930s, when she was known as Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), the fiercely protective older sibling of Njenna (Mia Erika Sparrok). Raised single-handedly by their mother after the passing of their father, the girls belonged to a long tradition of reindeer herders, a familiar profession of the Sami people. Abused and demeaned by their Swedish neighbors as ‘dirty Lapps,’ the girls are subjected to further distress at their boarding school where hobbling racism rears in the form of biological exams of Sami children meant to convey their distinct differences marking them as inferior to the Swedish race. Elle-Marje embarks on a rebellious effort to reject these attitudes as she begins to internalize her self-loathing, and re-names herself Christina as she attempts to pass as a Swede.
The Sami people are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia as well as the most northernmost of the European continent. Like other such groups of peoples, from the Native Americans of North America, the Romani people in Romania, the Aboriginal Australians, and many others, their history (which is often vaguely defined or conveniently abridged) is rife with tragedy at the hands of the overriding, often invading culture which subjugated and oppressed them.
Teased, demeaned, and defined erroneously by the practice of physiognomy in a period which contributed to the Sami’s being treated like lesser beings incapable of higher education, the specifics of Elle-Marja’s struggles should seem familiar to anyone who’s struggled with the label of ‘other.’ Her staunch and eventually aggressive rejection of her mother and sister is subtly reminiscent of the harrowing mother-daughter in Sirk’s famed 1959 version of Imitation of Life. Newcomer Lene Cecilia Sparrok gives a persuasive performance as the 14-year old version of Elle-Marja, alongside her real-life sister Mia Erika Sparrok as younger sister Njenna.
If there’s little surprise beyond highlighting Sweden’s sordid racist history in Kernell’s Sami Blood, what she does with her brief book-end slivers of the elderly Christina at her estranged sister’s funeral is more slyly powerful. Wiggling away from the proceedings to stay at a hotel on her own, Kernell provides a withering aside of vacationing Swedish women clucking in dismay at the noisy Sami reindeer herders swishing past their hallowed resort.
At the same time, Kernell drives home the steep price paid for those who divorce themselves entirely from the roots which bitterly defined them. To be haunted by an unreconciled past in the pointless pursuit of acceptance from an ambivalent, predominant throng takes a significant toll. While Kernell foregoes the lifespan of Christina from her adulthood through the funeral, we get the sense (despite her having raised a family) such a cross to bear was inescapable and defining.