Lene Cecilia Sparrok in Sami Blood (2016)

TIFF 2016: ‘Sami Blood’, ‘Planetarium’, and ‘(re)Assignment’

Pushing the limits: Toronto International Film Festival 2016 brings persecution, psychics and dubious action concepts to audiences.

At film festivals the normal calendar fast fades into irrelevancy. Days of the week matter little compared to the screening schedule.

The same is not true for the rest of the world outside the film bubble, as I found at the subway. Completely unaware it was Sunday, I arrived early in the morning to find the station locked. This put the first film of the day in doubt. Thankfully someone did eventually open the doors and a train turned up 25 minutes later. It meant a close-run thing, but a little bit of sprinting meant I only missed the first ten minutes of Sami Blood.

For a long time that morning I was worried I would miss the whole thing. That would have been a disaster. Sami Blood is a powerful and incredibly sad film, all the more impressive for being a debut feature. Amanda Kernell focuses on the plight of the Sami people, a mistreated indigenous group who have been ordered about by the Swedish state over the years.

Young Elle-Marja is one of a number of children forcibly packed off to boarding school to learn a little civilization. She’s taught Swedish and punished for using her native tongue, but is also not allowed to study at a proper school in town. The Sami people are unfit for town living, apparently.

Mistreatment is a big part of the story, and there are some horrific scenes, the worst is a medical examination that brings to mind other such practices going on in the ’30s. But it’s a far more complex story than that. Elle-Marja, now calling herself Christina, doesn’t want the restrictions posed on her. The only way to avoid them is to pass herself off as Swedish, a task requiring real bravery as she walks into the unknown.

It helps that the lead performance by Lene Cecilia Sparrok is mesmerizing, easily one of the best of the year. She’s given nowhere to hide as the camera spends a long time zoomed in on her face, waiting for reactions. By the end of Sami Blood, it’s clear that whatever she does will come at a cost; either to her family or her freedom. It’s hard to watch and also impossible not to.

Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp in Planetarium (2016)

The second film of the day abandoned intimate realism for a meandering, ethereal approach. Planetarium from French director Rebecca Zlotowski casts Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as sisters touring Europe with their supernatural act. Portman is the compere and Depp the channeller of lost spirts as they hold séances for customers to contact departed loved ones. One such session brings them into contact with a French film producer, who takes them under his wing and launches into an ambitious project soured by the fascist cloud threatening Europe in the build-up to WWII.

Fulfilling narratives are cast aside in favor of atmosphere as Planetarium crafts a visually and aurally impressive backdrop. It’s best viewed half on the verge of sleep, where it can sink in to your mind at an instinctual level. There’s little in the way of forward momentum, and certainly no answers (arguably there are not even any questions), but as an experience it’s certainly something.

Sigourney Weaver in (Re) Assignment (2016)

It would have been quite nice to finish there, drifting off into whatever dimension Zlotowski was leading us to, but a Walter Hill revenge thriller awaited. Given his last film ended in an axe fight, it’s fair to say that this film would be a departure from earlier in the day. (re)Assignment comes with a controversial premise, one that sees Sigourney Weaver’s insane surgeon punish Michelle Rodriguez’s hitman by forcing him to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Thus, Frank Kitchen, Rodriguez with an appalling stick on beard and fake nose, becomes a woman.

Hardly a sensitive take on identity politics, it’s not as offensive as its sounds, mostly because it’s little more than a cheap gimmick. Demeaning though that is, the film does briefly pause to conclude Frank does not automatically become a woman when his body changes. Instead, after a terrible makeover reminiscent of Sean Connery turning Japanese in You Only Live Twice, Rodriguez emerges as a woman in body alone — before heading on a killing spree.

The dialogue is about a dumb as you’ll ever hear in a film, and the set-up isn’t far behind, but overall (re)Assignment is actually pretty dull. Only the gleeful stupidity of the whole affair makes it watchable. And wow, is it stupid.