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Even if you’ve seen more coming-of-age movies than you care to recall, it’s a nearly sure bet that you’ve never sat through one that spoke of yoiking. Sami Blood, the feature debut of writer-director Amanda Kernell, is a fascinating take on the familiar genre because of the people it centers on: the Sami, a once-maligned indigenous race who here are portrayed in 1930s northern Sweden. Its rebel is 14-year-old reindeer-herder Elle-Marja, and she wants to get the hell out of Dodge.
Regarding yoiking, after a few references Kernell finally reveals 15 minutes in that it’s a kind of singing/chanting that only the Sami practice. “Don’t yoik at school,” Elle-Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) tells her younger sister, Njenna (Mia Erika Sparrok, her real sister). Though Elle-Marja is a model student, she’s ashamed of the research she and her classmates are subject to as if they were sideshow freaks: head measurement, study of their facial features, and finally a strip-down in front of the entire class. Elle-Marja hesitates—she’s extremely reluctant to submit to this process—but her teacher (Hanna Alström), who’s the knuckle-rapping kind, demands that she set an example for the others.
The moment is agonizing, and only one of many to come. A pretty dress that Elle-Marja finds on a clothesline turns out to be a gateway; she steals it and attends a Swedish gathering, dancing and smoking and even kissing a boy. The experience is something she desperately needs after attacking a group of guys who insult and then rape her. But she’s a “filthy Lapp” and gets caught, with the punishment being a whipping on her bare back.
Throughout the film, there’s a clear divide between “real” Swedes and the Sami, with a particular emphasis on which language a person uses. There’s also plenty of judgment from both sides: Some society girls condescendingly ask Elle-Marja (who begins to call herself Christina) to yoik at a birthday party, for example, while her mother—bitter that her eldest ran away—once comments, “Don’t you go and get all Swedish.” We see that Elle-Marja carries that sense of disparagement for her entire life, as the film is framed with her elderly self coming home for a funeral and referring to the Sami as “those people.”
Kernell, herself half-Sami, gets the details of this little-known race right, from their traditional clothing to the research performed on them. And the attitude of “other” is, of course, reflected in our bigoted assumptions today, with only the specifics differing and the systemic racism generally writ larger. (The Sami were considered to have smaller brains and be incapable of surviving outside their circles.)
The most pervasive aspect of Sami Blood, however, is its unrelenting weight. Lene Cecilia Sparrok does an excellent job of relating Elle-Marja’s misery and determination without looking like she’s simply sulking. And Kernell places the character in fraught situations, including one in which she talks the parents of the boy she danced with into letting her stay in their nice house. The tightrope she must walk during dinner with them—the kid isn’t home—will have your stomach in knots. You may think Elle-Marja’s got guts, or you may think she’s foolish in pushing her luck. Either way, Kernell leaves you with a people you’ll want to know better and a heroine you won’t soon forget.
Sami Blood opens Friday at West End Cinema.