Swedish-Sami writer director Amanda Kernell’s first feature film “Sami Blood,” is a striking drama set against the backdrop of racism against the Sami people in the North of Sweden, about a young Sami girl’s decision to sever ties with her Lapland heritage to become seemingly Swedish. It’s also the first bona-fide feature shot by a Sami director. Kernell was inspired by her grandmother to reconstruct the little known discrimination against the semi-nomadic reindeer-herding Sami community in 1930’s Sweden. She developed the film from a short that premiered at Sundance in 2015. “Sami Blood” bowed in Venice, where it won the Europa Cinemas Label as Best European Film in the Venice Days section, before segueing to Toronto and now having its Middle East premiere in Dubai. It will be screening at Sundance in 2017.
Kernell spoke to Variety about the narrative and productive challenges of making a movie in a language spoken by roughly 500 people. Excerpts.
Simply put, what drew you to the subject matter?
People don’t know about our heritage and race because they don’t know our history. I’m interested in whether these things define you or not, and whether you can you create another you. Whether your blood, your body and what’s in it, define you.
What’s your personal connection to the story?
In my family there are a few older people that really don’t want to have anything to do with Samis, who don’t like them and say harsh things about them. For some of these people one of the Sami languages was their first language, their mother tongue. But now they have another name, they are someone else, they are Swedish. So there is, like, either a shame or a pride, depending on who you are with. I always wondered what happens if you sever your Sami ties? Can you really become someone else?
Well the fact that the film comes from a personal place really shows.
It’s not an educational film. It’s about healing. I wanted to explore shame and the colonisation of your mind, not explain how this and that works. I also wondered more and more, where does the shame come from? And the anger. [It comes from] knowing that you are considered a person at a lower step in evolution. That also defines rules and regulations and what the state does with people whom it thinks are not able to take care of themselves.
How did the ‘Sami Blood’ get made from a production standpoint? I know it started with a short that went to Sundance.
I’ve been making shorts for ten years. When I started writing this I did a lot of interviews with older people and then decided to do this as a feature and do a short as a pilot with some development and production funding. Doing the short was a way of trying out some collaborations and how to use some traditional songs in the score, and a lot of things that I wanted to try out. One of these is the cast. The film is in Southern Sami language, which is spoken by only about 500 people. So I thought: I want two sisters and I want them to be really good and I want them to speak South Sami. It’s always a struggle for a director to convey something emotionally truthful, in this case having sibling actors who are real Samis was key.
Tell me about the casting process
It was a long. Because I think it’s important to give people more than one chance, especially with amateur actors. In the case of Lene Cecilia Sparrok [the film’s protagonist] and her younger sister [Mia Erika Sparrok] I tried them for a few scenes and then went to Norway, where they live, and did a whole day with both of them. Actually they are three sisters and they are all really good, but I could only use two. But the whole casting process was long and complicated, it took about six months.
The fact that you are a very meticulous director comes through in the film. But actually ‘Sami Blood’ took only three years to get done, which for a first feature is not that long.
It was not difficult to get the funding. In a way I was a bit worried when I got the funding, I was like: ‘Am I ready for this’? Making a feature is so difficult and shooting a period piece is even harder.
Do you feel part of a bigger global indigenous cinema movement?
Well, it’s encouraging that it exists, but I haven’t really had the time to learn enough about it. It’s also encouraging that there are other Sami directors, and that there is a Sami Film Institute It’s certainly very important for us [Sami directors] to have conversations.