Amanda Kernell, director of 'Sami Blood,' discusses how she brought a dying indigenous culture to startling life.
Many directorial debuts are coming-of-age stories, both in terms of process and of form. Because many first-time directors also happen to be young, they naturally gravitate toward stories that are familiar to them; hence the popularity of the genre. But a director's first feature film is also his or her own coming-of-age story. Many first films involve great highs, great lows, and a bevy of lessons learned the hard way, often resulting in an overwrought tone that mirrors the complexity of the production.
"Everyone says there are three rules for your debut film: You shouldn't do a historical film, no children, and no animals. I did all of that on a small budget."
First-time director Amanda Kernell's Sami Blood is a uniquely understated coming-of-age story that bucks the conventions of both process and form. For her first go-around, Kernell broke all the rules: she made a period film, cast child non-actors, and involved animals in her production. The resulting film has a quiet profundity rarely seen in the work of a novice filmmaker. It's centered around the courageous performance of Lene Cecilia Sparrok, who plays teenage Elle-Marja, born into an indigenous Scandinavian culture known as the Sami. The film switches back and forth between the present and the 1930s, when Elle-Marja is sent to a Swedish boarding school to be "civilized." There, she discovers a love for learning—and for the first time since leaving her childhood in the remote mountains, experiences discrimination. Some of the film's most harrowing scenes involve this historically-accurate institutionalized racism; in one, Elle-Marja and her Sami peers are subjected to invasive "biological exams" by a doctor who clearly intends to propagate eugenics.
Kernell is herself half-Sami; her father descends from a long line of reindeer herders, while her mother is traditionally Swedish. The director brings this nuanced perspective to Sami Blood, at once illuminating a troubled history of oppression and wading through the rich waters of identity. No Film School sat down with Kernell to discuss how she managed to cast Sami actors (given that less than 500 people still speak the language fluently) and more.
No Film School: Do you remember when you were first made aware of your Sami heritage?
Amanda Kernell: Well, I have a Sami father and a Swedish mother, and my father is very active in the Sami community. He's from a reindeer-herding family. We don't do that, but all the cousins and everyone else does. So I grew up with both sides and, you could say, in the middle of this conflict. I grew up going to slaughterings of the reindeer with my cousins who are in reindeer herding, and studying the language in school. My father thinks it's very important to spread knowledge about it. I guess that was also part of why I wanted to make this film.
There are a lot of Sami people who grow up not knowing where their relatives or parents are from, but that's not the case for me. This film is a declaration of love to the elders in my family and in their generation. Some of them don't want anything to do with Sami people and strongly reject them and speak quite badly about them, even though they are Sami. For many of these people, Sami was their first and only language as a child before they went to school, where they could only speak Swedish. They grew up reindeer herding. But now they have another name and say they're Swedish and don't talk about their past and have no contact with the other part of the family.
"A lot of what the film is about is an open wound—things we can't really talk about in my family."
NFS: Did any of your relatives experience the discrimination depicted in the film? Did you?
Kernell: Not being a reindeer herder makes it much easier because I don't look very Sami—well, how people stereotypically believe that we look. I could sort of choose my identity. I mean, I don't wear my traditional clothes if I don't feel comfortable with it.
Kernell: I studied South Sami in school—that's my mother tongue—but I would tell people that I had music lessons. I didn't want them to pay any attention to [my Sami heritage] because I've seen my father get in a lot of trouble when he's wearing traditional clothes. People say that he shouldn't be here—you know, things that they say in the film. Of course, I've always known about the discrimination of the 1930s, but the things that the Swedish boys in the village say to Elle Marja [the main character] when she goes to school—those are things that the children in the film have heard themselves today.
I think our generation is the first generation to not be as ashamed; therefore, it's much easier for us to make a film like this. But a lot of what the film is about is an open wound—things we can't really talk about in my family.
NFS: You started with a short film that premiered at Sundance in 2015. What happened between that film's premiere and the development of this feature film?
Kernell: The short, called Northern Great Mountain, was a pilot for the feature, so it's a part of the script. The script was already written. We did it with pilot money from the Swedish Film Institute, and then some additional funding to finish it as a real short. I had already cast the main character when we shot the short. It was sort of an artistic preparation and investigation of form—how it would work visually and so on.
NFS: I hear you began casting two years in advance?
Kernell: Yeah. I wanted to cast two real sisters, and they had to speak South Sami, which is only spoken by 500 people fluently. It's one of the most threatened languages, according to the United Nations. Most people who can speak the language fluently are probably in reindeer herding, because for people who have left and moved to the city, it may be harder to keep the language alive.
Then I found these two sisters. I auditioned probably all teenage girls who speak South Sami. In the Sami area where I'm from, no one was going around dreaming, "I will become an actress or an actor." We had to go to their homes. My casting director's assistant had to go to people's homes and have coffee and talk about it. Some would say, "Oh you can come back another day, I don't know if I want to do this casting now." There's a natural skepticism towards people making films or photography about them because there's a history of abuse.
NFS: How did you convince your actors that you would not exploit them?
Kernell: We had to explain how I would do this scene, especially the scenes with the biology exam with the real instruments that were used. And I think, coming from a Sami family myself...I mean, it's kind of a small community, so people would know my father, since it's he's a public Sami person. Some of my second cousins were in the film, and so on. My family has been very supportive and many of them are extras—the 80-year-olds and so on. I think it would have been very hard if I had come from the outside. People would have been more scared of being exploited or misunderstood.
"With period pieces, people tend to lean back a little bit and watch the beautiful dresses because you know it's faked reality. I wanted the audience to be more involved."
But I didn't have to explain the story, because everyone knows this story, in a way. I think in most Sami families, someone has had this journey of making a radical choice and cutting all ties to your family and history and changing your identity. And, of course, growing up as a teenage girl, you want to be someone else. You want to change yourself to be liked or loved and to fit in. Those questions are very relatable: If I lie about myself a little bit, will they like me more? But then if they like me, do they really like me, or is it all a lie?
Half of the cast had never acted before, like the sisters. Their grandmother played their grandmother, and so on. And there are many things in the film that actually are true. This is kind of a hybrid thing, I think, between reality and fiction. Even though we say it takes place in the 1930s, I wanted it to have that kind of authenticity. I think if you make historical period pieces, people tend to lean back a little bit and watch the beautiful dresses because you know it's faked reality. I wanted the audience to be more involved than that, so I wanted to make it more physical and violent and with a "real" feeling to it.
I wanted everything that could be true to be true, so I shot it all on location. There are mosquitoes and mountain weather and reindeer and a lot of children and dogs and people. Everyone says there are three rules for your debut film: You shouldn't do a historical film because it's more difficult and much more expensive, and no children, and no animals. I did all of that on a small budget.
But I think it was the right choice, because I wanted the people to forget about time, in a way. Somehow it's easy to start [drawing attention to] the time period, because you get fascinated with things from the 1930s and you want to show them [onscreen], but we tried not to do that.
NFS: The film does exist outside the realm of time in a beautiful way, so you forget that it is a period piece for half of the film. I think it really does help immerse you.
Kernell: Yeah, I think so too. Also, you know, everything is a memory in the film, but memories can prove even more present. Like grief. You remember details and nature, and you remember the face of the first boy you slept with. How it felt the first time you learned how to float in water. Or, in the Sami's case, the first time you herded a reindeer.
NFS: Did these memories come from speaking with Samis during the research process?
Kernell: Yes. And, of course, it's autobiographical. I've been a teenage Sami girl, running away from home and lying about things. But a lot of it is from the interviews. I interviewed people who left and now live in Stockholm and haven't taught their children Sami and don't want them to wear the Sami clothes. Some of them have completely changed identity and can't talk about it. But those that did want to talk, I asked them what they missed. How it felt sitting there when the reindeer stand around you, all calm, and it's quiet, and you feel at peace. Also, what hurt the most in school. One of the Samis told me he got his ear cut by a schoolboy, like how you mark a calf. So I put that in the film.
"In the Sami area where I'm from, no one was going around dreaming, 'I will become an actress or an actor.'"
But, of course, it's fiction, too. I didn't want to make an educational film about Sami people. I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story. Can you really become another person? How does that feel?
NFS: Can you talk a little about working with the star [Lene Cecilia Sparrok], who is a non-actor?
Kernell: She's just brilliant. I can't take any credit for that. I was so happy she was awarded best actress in Tokyo; that was really amazing. For 10 years, I've been working a lot with non-actors, together with actors. I always do a little acting school for them. We do a lot of rehearsal and try to work on our language together. I don't believe in result directing.
I was lucky enough to know [firsthand] many of the situations in the movie. I can relate. I also know the crafts, like how to mark a calf, how to catch the reindeer, etc. You know, people ask how I made up this character that behaved this way. For me, it couldn't be any other way. All the women in my family are like this. We say that we are like the birch trees that grow on mountains: they never break, they just bend. The women in our family don't even cry. They just go on. They have this incredible strength to do anything in a way that you want in your life.
Kernell: In my grandparents' time, you weren't allowed to eat with forks and knives because people believed that if Sami children got a taste for civilization, they would want that, and they were not developed for that. The belief was that their frontal lobe was not developed, so they would stay a child. People really believed that. You would read Swedish race signs. They released a book for kids in Swedish schools not that long ago. I always wondered what that did to this generation—reading about yourself, that you're on a lower level of evolution. How should you think about yourself?
NFS: Do you think Swedish society today feels any shared responsibility to keep the Sami culture alive?
Kernell: I'd say no. There's no knowledge. We don't learn about Samis in school unless you had a teacher who wants to talk about it. The friends I grew up with would say they haven't met a Sami person except me and my father. I am sure they have; they just don't know it because people don't know what to look for. Some people think, "Oh, they live in the mountains somewhere, or maybe in a teepee." But we're everywhere.
I feel a great responsibility to do something about this. Since I was a child, I've been wanting to solve this conflict in my family and take away the shame and guilt and the secrets and silence. I wanted people to reunite. I wanted to make this happen before the older generation dies. Since I couldn't do it in real life, I did it through fiction.
NFS: I'm very glad you brought the Sami story to light, especially for those on a global level who, like me, had never heard of the Sami.
Kernell: Yeah, I'm happy to do so. On the other hand, people have really recognized themselves in the movie. We've been showing it in Japan and Canada. So many people have said, "Oh, this film is really about me." And I hadn't even thought about it before making it, but it rings true for a lot of people with a migration background. Of course, people can relate even more if they're from minorities or oppressed groups.
Also, our Danish co-producer—this football guy from the countryside, who now lives in Copenhagen—saw the film and was like, "Oh god, I didn't get this when I was reading it, but this is kind of about me." I was like, "Wow, really?" He was the last guy I would think who would recognize himself. He's like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I'm from the countryside, but you probably don't know because I've changed my dialect and I never talk about it. I never go there. I'm someone else now. Or at least I think I'm someone else. You know, who I am is kind of a lie, but it's me now."