Nothing Fake: Amanda Kernell on Sami Blood
Amanda Kernell discusses the importance of conveying how a situation feels, filming in a language only a few hundred people speak, and the extraordinary casting process for her film.
In 1930s Sweden a young reindeer-herding Sámi girl faces racism and prejudice. To fit in at boarding school she wants to leave her rural roots and break all ties with her culture, but her actions threaten to tear her family apart.
Sami Blood is written and directed by Amanda Kernell, and is her first feature film. To date it has collected ten awards at film festivals and been nominated for many more, while the short film it was based upon, Stoerre Vaerie, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Kernell about discusses the importance of conveying how a situation feels, filming in a language only a few hundred people speak, and the extraordinary casting process for her film.
Can you share some details about your background, and what made you want to become a filmmaker?
My mom had a theater education, and I loved to be in that world. So I thought I would do something with the theater, maybe direct, maybe act.
Then when I was fifteen I had work experience with a great Swedish director, Suzanne Osten. She writes, too, and works a lot with personal stories from her own life, put together in different ways. And seeing her directing and working with her material, and having so much fun while doing it, I guess made me want to do the same thing.
There are all these questions that you think about in your own life, like family secrets, and shame, and things that are hard to talk about. But by making them into art you can play with them, and you can talk about them, and explore them.
So that’s how it started. And then I started writing and making shorts when I was 18 or 19, then screenwriting and then directing.
Where did the idea for Sami Blood come from?
There are elders in my family who strongly reject Sami people and speak quite badly about them. They are Sami themselves, but now they’re Swedish, they want nothing to do with their past. They won’t talk about it.
And then, the rest of my family are Sami, most of them, and working reindeer herding today.
So I grew up with both sides, and all these things that we can’t talk about. And I always wondered, can you really become another person, and what happened to this generation? Because there were so many who left, and changed their name. Many, I think, didn’t even tell their children where they were really from, so a lot of people might not even know that they have Sami parents or grandparents.
And I wondered too what happens if you cut all ties with your family and your background, your culture. What does it do to you to grow up in a time where you were seen as an inferior race? How can you not internalize that, and how do you defend yourself against that, or keep your dignity in such a system?
So the film is really like a declaration of love to this older generation, both sides, those who left everything, and those who stayed in reindeer herding and the more traditional lifestyle.
Did you ever consider making a documentary or was this always meant to be a historical fiction piece?
I didn’t want to make an educational film of what happened in this time period.
I mean, of course, I wanted the details to be correct, because it hasn’t been told in film before. And we don’t even read about this in school: the boarding school system we used to have, the State Institute for Race Biology, and how they saw the Sami people, and what happened to this generation and the internalized racism.
So that’s a part of it. But in making films, I’m more interested in how you make an image that conveys what it feels like, rather than how it was or how it is.
So I was more interested in making a good story, where you should sit on the edge of your seat, and it should be as violent, and beautiful, and grandiose as it feels like growing up.
Can you speak a little more about reindeer and the Sami people, for those unfamiliar with the culture?
Yes, it’s very central to Sami culture. But there’s a misunderstanding that Sami culture is only about reindeer herding. And all Sami people were not reindeer herders, and are not. So there were also fishing Samis, and forest Sami people, and hunters.
But the traditional way of living is nomadic and you moved with the reindeer, to the coast during winter and up in the mountains during summer. Your life followed the reindeer. There’s also a religious side to it. But, I mean, the film is not about reindeer in that sense.
The main characters are speaking a language that only a few hundred people on earth speak. What was the casting process like?
I wanted to make the film in Skolt Sami, because that’s the language that I speak. There are a number of Sami languages, and this is one of the smaller ones, so there are about 500 Skolt speakers.
Because of our politics, where we had these compulsory schools until the 1960s where you were only allowed to speak Swedish, a lot of people don’t speak the language any more. And a lot of these older generations have chosen not to teach their children, and that stops the thing.
The casting process I started two years before shooting, because I wanted, preferably, real sisters, and I wanted them, preferably, to be sisters who have been growing up within the Sami community and reindeer herding. Because I wanted them to be able to use a knife, to use a lasso, to know the craft, and it’s a difficult craft. It takes a long time to learn.
So I wanted all that to be right, and for them to speak the language, of course, and then I wanted them to have these kind of strengths, and dignity, and integrity that I feel that I always admired.
I feel like the older women in my family have incredible strength. We say that they’re like the mountain birch. You know, the small birch that grows on mountains—they never break, they just bend.
And so I wanted to find like the Katniss Everdeen of the Sami region.
And then, actually, someone told me, “Oh, if you want Katniss Everdeen, I know her. Her name is Lene Cecilia Sparrok and she lives in Norway. And fortunately, she has two sisters, actually, who are really good actresses, both of them.”
So the difficult part was to choose which sister couldn’t be in this role! I was very lucky. It seemed like…How do you say it? That I wanted the impossible.
And even then, of course, as a director you want someone whose face you will remember forever, and that’s not just a good actress, but someone who stays with you.
I really admired them. They do it so whole-heartedly. When they got their parts, both of them said, “We can do this.” They read the script. They don’t want to be actresses, they want to work in reindeer herding, but they said, “We can do this. But we can’t cry. So, if you want someone to cry, you should go look for someone else.”
They’re boarding school kids. You can’t show your weakness. You have to be strong because no one will come and get you if you just lay down crying.
I said, “You know, for these two small scenes where you cry, we can fake it, you know, it’s film, it’s fiction. We can fake it.” But they said, “We don’t do fake. If it hurts, it should hurt.”
So they’re not doing anything fake. I mean, there’s some scenes with knives and violence, where they said, “Why are we doing this in the stunt way? We should fight.” So they’re pretty hard-core.
That definitely brings a realism feeling to the film.
Yes. I was kind of scared of making a period piece, actually, because I wanted people to feel like they were present in the room, and that it should be raw and violent, and not so polished. I think it can easily become polished, both the acting and the way people look, the studio lighting or whatnot. So I really tried to shoot it on location using fog, and smoke, and water, and all the mosquitoes and flies, and the reindeer, and blood.
So you feel like it’s happening right here and right now, and as violent, in a way, as this lifestyle is. And also like what it’s like growing up as a teenager. I think that’s pretty violent for many of us, but for most people they don’t have a knife, you know. It’s not as bloody, maybe.
The girls are told that they don’t have the same skills as Swedish children.
That’s the way it was. What the teacher is saying, is actually a quote from our Parliament at the time, from the Swedish Parliament.
People see Sweden as kind of a role model country for human rights. But we had the first State Institute for Racial Biology in the world.
It started in 1922, and that inspired the Germans very much. I mean, they made the racial profiling cards that were used in the concentration camps, and the whole system, and they made the skull reference index. It’s how you profile short-headed people and long-headed people, and inferior races and superior races. That’s a Swedish invention.
It was not just Samis who seen as inferior, but the head of the State Institute for Race Biology had a special interest in the Sami population. The Sami were seen as a threat, so they they didn’t want mixed marriages. And before World War II and until just after, you were not allowed to build. If you were going to be a Sami, you were not allowed to build dwellings, to own or build houses.
And it was believed that the Sami the frontal lobe was not developed. So adult Sami reindeer herders would have a guardian from the state, telling you how many reindeers you can have, and how to take care of them. They would say where you should put your children into school, decide all kinds of things for you.
And in the schools, Sami children were not allowed to eat with forks and knives, or sleep in linen. Because Parliament said that if they get a taste for civilization they will be drawn to it, but they are not fit for that, they will not be able to handle that, and it will be their death.
We hardly know this in Sweden. We don’t read about it in school. It’s a bit public now, but it should be in the curriculum. It’s very much connected to the Nazi racial profiling, because they wrote a lot of books in German, and then the State Institute for Racial Biology in Germany was very much inspired by the Swedish one, and they had a lot of cooperation.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share about the film?
For me, it was not about explaining our history. It was more about this colonization of our mind, and internalized racism.
I thought for a long time it was about shame. And maybe it is. But after seeing it with a Sami audience, I thought, “No, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s about dignity. Maybe it’s about how to keep your dignity in the system, and how you fight for that.”
I think that’s one of the reasons why it resonates in a lot of countries, and has been traveling so well. Because a lot of people feel that it’s about our situation in Europe today, how it affects our generation and integration.
How much does the place where you were born, and the body you were born into, and the family you were born into, define you or not? Can you free yourself from that, or is it impossible? And if you can, what happens to you then? Who are you then?
I’m very happy I’ve been able to make this film. Because I have all these questions, and you kind of get an answer meeting an audience.
Featured image: Lene Cicilia Sparrok in Sami Blood © Nordisk Film, Sophia Olsson