As Amanda Kernell's first feature-length film, Sami Blood, demonstrates, measures of indoctrination and assimilation used against indigenous people are not territorially exclusive: They traverse the world over, even Scandinavia's northern reaches. And their effects were disastrous.
Depicted are the Sami, a nomadic indigenous group in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia known for reindeer herding and their elegant, head-to-toe style of dress. Like indigenous people in Canada, they did not escape efforts of Euro-centrism: Children were separated from their families during the 19th and 20th centuries and sent to boarding schools where they were restricted from speaking in their mother tongues, beaten, called "Lapps" and forced to internalize Christianity.
Elle Marja, a young, traditional Sami girl played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok (who is Sami herself), serves as a testament to the complicated psychological transformation – or dispossession – many children were forced to endure. Lessons at a Swedish boarding school in 1930s taught that Sami were an inferior race (a mainstream belief at the time), instilling within Marja self-hatred and contempt for her own people.
"I wanted to make a film about shame, about the colonization of the mind," Ms. Kernell, who is also Sami, said during a Q&A at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
By now, this should echo what happened simultaneously in Canada, when indigenous people (150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children) entered the residential school system and were taught they were of lesser worth than the dominant society. They were told the only path to salvation was to forfeit their culture, perceived by some as exotic, dirty and offensive. These have added to a mental affliction known – and experienced by many – as inter-generational trauma.
Throughout the film, Marja adopts a Christian name, a metaphor for conversion. This act is reinforced by oppressive lessons and attitudes at the boarding school and beyond.
In one scene, Sami children line up to have their craniums measured, part of a junk phrenology experiment. Afterwards, a flashbulb illuminates their nude bodies, disseminating pictures to science journals wanting to capture their perceived "otherness."
Because of Marja's eagerness to learn and adopt European norms, she quickly becomes an exemplary boarding school pupil. She starts holding her tea cup with an extended pinky and recites Christian hymns proudly. She bathes herself to get rid of the supposed Sami stink, burns and replaces her traditional garb, and starts smoking cigarettes. Feeling like an outcast from her peers, she runs away to Uppsala after becoming infatuated with a Swedish boy. In the face of discrimination, she returns to her Sami community, only to find that it appears different. It no longer represents home, but a strange and foreign place she disdains. In a choice she can never take back, she rejects her family, despite their offerings of unconditional love.
The transition of assuming another identity causes Marja to become forever trapped on the threshold dividing the Sami and the rest of European society – an awkward and subconsciously devastating state of mind, the film posits.
Ms. Kernell said she found this concept of becoming a new person to be enigmatic, and a phenomenon that hit very close to home: Her own family struggled with identity issues.
"I grew up seeing a lot of older people in my family who want nothing to do with Sami people and speaking very badly about them, always knowing that they are Sami," she said in an interview on The Globe and Mail's outdoor roof deck, not far from the major festival venues. "I always wondered what happened to this generation."
In the film's opening scene, Marja is an old woman going by the name Christina. Despite the traditional upbringing she had in her early years, she calls the Sami people liars and thieves who whine. Ms. Kernell said many pejorative quotes in Sami Blood come from her own grandmother – on whom the protagonist is modelled.
"She doesn't want to talk about [her heritage]. You can't," she said. "She's another person now. We only talk about 'nice things.'"
Ms. Kernell's grandmother (who is still alive) has not been back to the mountains where the Sami live since 1962, she said.
The Sami have not been given a truth and reconciliation commission as Canadian indigenous people have. Ms. Kernell's film is intended to have a similar effect.
"I want this film to have a gathering impact on our people," she said. "It's dialogue about the conflicts and wounds. In making it, it's less lonely for me."
An earlier version of this article included an incorrect date. This version has been corrected.