“I would like to continue studying.” (Elle Marje)
“You are very good but you can’t.” (Teacher)
“Why not?” (Elle Marje)
“Studies have shown that you wouldn’t make it in the city, your brain is smaller.” (Teacher)
A smaller brain, this would be certified by the anthropometric exams of the cranium conducted on the children of the Sami nomad community (better known as the Lapp), in Sweden in the 1930’s. A little known chapter in the annals of Swedish history, marked by alienation, discrimination and racism.
SAMI BLOOD, a beautiful first work of the Swedish film-maker, Amanda Kernell, presented at the Authors’ Day at the last Venice International Film Festival and finalist in the Lux Film Prize awarded by the European Parliament, reminds us that the abhorrent genetic theories in vogue at the time were not only the exclusive property of the Nazis, who applied them with an incomparable scientific rigor.
We are in the extreme north-east of Sweden, an unimaginable paradise for us – snowy peaks, breath-taking plateaus, reindeers and Santa Claus. Here, with her mother and sister, lives Elle Marje, the 12-year-old main character of SAMI BLOOD. She belongs to the Sami community, historically concentrated in the north of the Scandinavian peninsula and on the Russian peninsula of Kola.
Custodians of the old tradition of reindeer farming and breeding and a distinct rural way of life, for the Swedish the Sami were little more than primitive people, decked out jesters in their kolts (the traditional Sami costume), only interesting for their singing of the yoik, a type of ballad for narrating stories and legends.
At that time, the Swedish government carried out a policy of assimilation in isolation – the Sami were prohibited to use their language (a mix of Finno-Ugric dialect origins), their children sent to study the Swedish language and culture in boarding schools reserved exclusively for them. Just to remind them that they were Sami and would remain Sami and “the Swedish study other things.”
Strong-willed, determined and intelligent, Elle Marje is different from her classmates, to begin with, from her sister Njenna who is deaf (and hostile) to the constant reminders of the Swedish civilization. Instead, Elle Marje wants to be a part of it, to be one of them. To be another person.
The physical differences would already be enough to destroy any of her ambitions. She is small and of stocky build in a world of Sirens, precluding her from that Swedish identity that she wanted to assume at all costs.
She is stripped, examined, measured under the amused gaze of Swedish girls and boys who spy on her from outside the window. Mocked, harassed, attacked, Elle Marje defends herself with all the fury of a wounded lioness, until giving in, overwhelmed and helpless, in the face of male strength and the ritual of ear-cutting, as if she were a reindeer.
Elle Marje would hide that scar behind a long plait of hair for the rest of her life.
Flashes of fire and shadows of fear in her eyes when with the incredible courage of an adult she brazenly enters the life of the Swedish, in the city of Uppsala, where there lives a young man she had met at a dance. Burning her traditional clothes, Elle Marje puts on those of Christine, “because I don’t want to live like you circus animals”, she says to her mother and sister from whom she painfully distances herself forever. Elle Maries will never turn back.
She will be Christine for the rest of her life. Even when, at the end of her life, as an old lady she will return to the memories of Elle Marje.
SAMI BLOOD begins with an old woman accompanied by her son and grandson to her sister’s funeral. Her name is Christine and she is very anxious to return home. Those mountains, up north in Lapland, from where, a long time ago, she had cut off all her ties, rolling like a stone away to the south, are no longer her home.
Through the eyes of the old Christine we see flashbacks to the life of Elle Marje, her alienation from the Sami community, the racism of the Swedish.
The right of the Sami to their culture and their language did not receive any attention until the 1970s, when the Reindeer Husbandry Law (1971) recognized the Sami as reindeer farmers with special rights to use the land and the water. All the rest was ignored. Currently, about 3,000 Sami depend on the reindeers, their farming being strongly threatened by the modern methods of deforestation and the ploughing up of land.
Proud of their ethnic and cultural identity, the Sami founded the National Union of the Swedish Sami People with the purpose of “preserving and developing the cultural community of the Sami, promoting the interests of the Sami livelihood in line with the needs of modern society” (Section II of the Statute of the National Union of the Swedish Sami People). In 2000, the Sami language, spoken by about 70% of the Sami people was recognized as their official language. Sweden, however, does not register the ethnic origins of its citizens, consequently, the exact number of Sami is unknown. It is estimated to be about 20,000.
“Many elderly Sami have turned their backs on their origins to become swedish […], and can they really become another person?” (Amanda Kernell)