In the 1930s, indigenous children in Nordic countries were sent to boarding schools to “assimilate” into mainstream white culture. In Sweden, Sámi children left their families of reindeer herders to attend these schools for months at a time, forbidden from speaking their own languages and wearing their own clothes. Many students were subject to abuse by their teachers and other officials who managed the schools. The effects of these assimilation projects are lasting and damaging — negative stereotypes about Sámi people and culture persist in Nordic culture, and many of the Sámi people sent to boarding schools in the 1930s want nothing to do with their reindeer-herding heritage. In recent years, Nordic people have learned much more about the history of these programs and the modern lives of Sámi groups in Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
Sámi-Swedish filmmaker Amanda Kernell’s newest feature, Sami Blood (2016), sheds light on a little-known aspect of this Nordic country’s history with particular resonance—it’s the first film made using the South Sámi language, of which there are only 500 remaining speakers. Told in two parts, Sami Blood follows Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) through her early life as a young South Sámi woman at a Swedish boarding school. Elle-Marja is bright and curious, and dreams of a new life in urban Sweden. When her beloved teacher tells her that, despite learning Swedish, she won’t be able to excel in the city, Elle-Marja runs away from the school, leaving behind a younger sister (Mia Erika Sparrok) who has clung fiercely to the traditional dress and language forbidden at boarding school. Years later, Elle-Marja has become Christina, a successful and educated urbanite—and passing as Swedish to the outside world. But following the death of her sister, whom she hasn’t seen in years, and her young granddaughter’s embrace of the Sámi culture she worked so hard to forget, Christina debates a return to her childhood home after decades away.
Following the TIFF premiere of Sami Blood, cléo spoke to Kernell about her work and her commitment to telling stories of Sámi people on film.
cléo: When did you realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Amanda Kernell: I’ve been making movies for 10 years, and I went to the National Film School of Denmark. I’ve never really done anything else. And every film I’ve made is about someone I know, but it’s my version of the story. It’s fiction. One thing fiction can do is open up a field of things you can talk about and of what you can’t talk about. The point of making art [is that] you can make people feel seen and less lonely.
cléo: Sami Blood is the first film made using the South Sámi language. Why was that important for you to incorporate into the story?
AK: There are no other South Sámi language films except my short, and only 500 fluent speakers of the language are left. I never thought about not using South Sámi in my work. I read South Sámi in school but it should have been my mother tongue. Even mother tongue speakers still doubt themselves, even though most of them speak it at home and many of them go to Sámi boarding school. I had a reason to go into a lot of detail [in the movie] and I needed the language to do that. I was worried for a while when I was writing, like maybe the two sisters [I was writing about] didn’t exist because [the actors] needed to be speakers of the language for me to make the story right. So we started casting two years in advance and found Lene Cecilia Sparrok and her sister Mia Erika, who are South Sámi. It’s an important part of the film, the question of how you lose the language. And how does it feel to hear your language again and speak it again?
cléo: The film is about a Sámi girl, but it’s also about a person trying to live on her own terms. Can you tell me about your process for developing the character?
AK: Everyone, especially the women in my family, are all very determined and strong. You have to be a strong individual to do reindeer herding, which many of them do. I wanted to explore what it would be like to be [Elle-Marja] and making those choices to leave everything behind and what would be the price of that. The film is also about what the girls know. They go to boarding school today, but they know the shame and pride and being far away from their parents, and how you have to be strong at all times, or at least seem to be. They told me, “I’ll be in the movie, but I won’t cry,” because you have to survive, you have to be tough. Elle-Marja doesn’t really speak much in the movie. There’s a lot of silence and a lot of things she can’t really talk about, especially how it feels when people look at you in a certain way; it’s easy to show on film but hard to say.
cléo: Sami Blood is also about the idea of home and how that can change depending on your choices. What about that theme speaks to you?
AK: I always thought about what happened to this generation [in the movie] who felt such anger or isolation. They are people who have been Sámi and want to be Swedish, or Swedes who say bad things about Sámi people. It’s been in my life since I was a kid, and I grew up with both sides. Can you repair that relationship? Would it help to go back home? I feel so homeless in a way, so I always wanted there to be some forgiveness or release or something. The more I started writing [Sami Blood], the more I thought maybe you can’t just go home. Would people welcome you? Is it even home anymore? If you’ve been somewhere else almost all your life is it still your home?
The more I started writing [Sami Blood], the more I thought maybe you can’t just go home.
cléo: What do you want audiences to understand about Sámi history from your film?
AK: Most people on my father’s side are reindeer herders, and they are very proud. But other older people, they don’t like Sámi people. They don’t talk about the past. The ones who are proud, they want to share their craft and language. I grew up knowing about this period of time and these boarding schools and the violence and the loss of language. But we don’t read about it in school, maybe one sentence during mandatory school. I’m not a historian — I’m interested in people’s lives and their true dilemmas and impossible situations. Family, blood ties… what does it mean to have those? If you lose them, how much does that define you? Coming from a Sámi family, I don’t want them to be ashamed of me for getting things wrong. So I’ve tried really hard to get the details right. Even if it’s fiction, if you see it in a film, it is real. It will change how people see us.