Image courtesy of TIFF

Meet the Two Female Canadian Filmmakers Who Caught The Eye of Ava DuVernay

Their profound film, The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, was inspired by a moving real-life encounter between two Indigenous women.

At the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, a film about a chance encounter between two Indigenous women in Vancouver began slowly gaining traction by word of mouth. Based on a real-life experience, the story of The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open unfolds over the course of a single afternoon, when a young woman, Aila, chances upon another young woman, Rosie, clearly in distress. Standing on a street corner in her neighbourhood, barefoot, Rosie is fleeing what seems like an abusive partner. Aila instinctively takes Rosie under her wing, leading her away from the scene to safety, to her own apartment a few blocks away.

Though both women are Indigenous, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Rosie is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation and lives in a housing project; Aila is half-Sámi (from Norway) and half-Blackfoot (from Alberta) and seems to live a comfortable middle-class existence. Issues of race and class enter the story gradually, making the relationship between the two strangers more complex as their interaction wears on. As Aila discovers, a simple matter of offering help to someone in need turns into something more layered and complicated when confronted with the stark reality of domestic violence, racism and safe spaces for Indigenous women in Canada. As her own naivety and privileges come into focus, so do Rosie’s quiet strength and resilience.

Co-written and -directed by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers (whose own experience the film is based on) and Kathleen Hepburn, the film went on to win the Toronto Film Critics Association’s 2019 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, and was picked up by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY, eventually landing on Netflix. FASHION caught up with the duo to learn more about the film, how DuVernay got involved, and what they hope viewers take away from the film.

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Last night, the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded @thebodyremembersfilm with the nation’s top film prize, the @rogers Best Canadian Film Award. I’m still in disbelief. My legs felt as though they were about to give out as we walked up to that stage last night. We put so much love into making this little film and couldn’t have done it without the love, support, and generous contributions from so many people. The TBR family is a remarkable one and I am so grateful to our whole cast & crew for everything they brought to this project. Everything about this film was unconventional. @kathleen.hepburn and I did it our way and learned that there’s no one way to make a film. In our acceptance speech, I struggled to find my words but I mentioned that Indigenous people face so much darkness each and every day in this country. The Prime Minister is fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that the federal govt must compensate Indigenous people for historical wrongdoings by the foster care system. The Guardian released a damning article revealing that the RCMP sanctioned “lethal overwatch” of Indigenous people peacefully protecting the land at #Unistoten. Finally, the statistics show that Indigenous women are still being murdered and going missing at the same rates as before the #MMIW Inquiry – nothing has changed. Kathleen also mentioned that Indigenous women are up to 7x more likely to die as a result of violence and that Indigenous children make up more than 50% of youth in foster care, despite making up only 8% of the Canadian youth pop. Rosie & Áila, the two Indigenous women at the centre of our film, carry all of that. And through it all, they find love, empathy, compassion, and strength. That’s what this film is about. It means a great deal to us that so many critics offered brave and insightful reviews- often with a deep compassion for Rosie and Áila’s circumstances. Special thanks to the women who put such care into their reviews. Those reviews helped get ppl into the theatres to watch this film. It was an honour to be nominated alongside @antigonelefilm & @firecrackersfilm. Duhát giitu, #TFCA2020 💙 . . Jewelry @tania.larsson Dress @workhallstudio

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To start, this is a question for you Elle-Maija, because the film was inspired by a real-life experience that you had. Could you walk us through that encounter and share why it stuck with you?

Elle-Maija Tailfeathers: Well, it happened about six years ago, in the same neighbourhood where the film takes place. Much like in the film, I encountered a young woman standing barefoot and pregnant in the rain, and she’d just fled her abusive partner and she didn’t want to go to the hospital or the police. So I ended up taking her home with me thinking that I had the capacity to help her solve the problem. But I very quickly came to the realization that I was so naive to the reality of women living with domestic violence and also naive to the reality of the services that are available. I thought it was as simple as calling the women’s shelter and getting her a place to stay and it would all be resolved. But it was nothing like that. All the shelters in town were overburdened with women needing places, and are of course underfunded and underresourced.

So it was a very challenging and enlightening experience. I learned so much from this young woman and realized that she had so many more skills and strengths than I did in that particular situation. Just like in the film, I never saw her again. She lived just a few blocks away from me so I would frequently walk past the building, hoping that I’d bump into her and find out what happened but I never did. So the experience really stuck with me and I guess I felt a need to honour her story and other women like her.

In the real-life encounter you had, what was your first instinct? Was it naturally to reach out and help? Because that’s not necessarily everybody’s first instinct when they see someone in need.

EMT: My first instinct was to reach out and help, and I think that has to do with the fact that she was another Indigenous woman. I think all Indigenous women are conscious of the ways that many Indigenous women experience violence on a daily basis, be it domestic partner abuse or other forms of systemic and structural violence. I felt compelled to reach out and help because nobody was stopping for her. I often think about what would happen if I put myself in her shoes and I honestly think somebody would have stopped, simply because of the way I look. Racism is so prevalent in Canada especially towards Indigenous women and so I think a lot of people just saw another young Indigenous woman in distress and didn’t have the urge to help her out. That speaks to the larger issue of racism in Canadian society, and also maybe just that when we live in urban centres often we become desensitized to others who might be struggling.

I found it interesting that, as a viewer, every time you thought you had a handle on who had power in the equation, or who had the better grasp of the situation, it would kind of flip and you were never really sure who was helping whom and what each of them was taking away from that situation. Is that something that you experienced at the time as well?

EMT: Yes, absolutely. There were so many moments when I realized that this young woman had so many skills and strengths that I didn’t, and I learned from her. So when Kathleen and I went through the writing process that was something we heavily considered in every single scene — who has the power, who has the agency. We didn’t want to frame Rosie within this victim narrative nor did we want to frame Aila as the saviour.

KH: We were trying to honour that original experience where you felt at first that you knew how to solve this problem and then very quickly realized how [few] tools you had to address the situation. I think we wanted to make sure that people understood that Rosie also brings a great deal of knowledge, she’s taking care of herself, she’s independent, she’s a survivor and in a way Aila is really naive in the situation.

EMT: And with Rosie, she’s aging out of foster care so — in Canada there’s a major issue of what happens to youth when they age out of the foster care system at the age of 19. In BC there was a study done on what happens to youth when they age out of care and there was an alarming number of youths who died in that year when they aged out of care because they’re forced into homelessness, sex work, just very dangerous situations because they have no other choice. So Rosie is this resourceful young person who has to make very difficult decisions just to stay alive. That was something we hoped the audience walked away with rather than judgement for the decisions that she made.

Congratulations on Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY picking you guys up. How did that come about?

KH: Maija was selected to be a Sundance fellow two years ago as we were going into production on this film and through that she was connected to Bird Runningwater, who’s been a huge supporter of the film throughout. And when we were screening the film in Berlin, he tweeted about our opening screening and Ava sent him a message after that saying ‘I want to watch this film.’ So we sent it to her, but didn’t hear for months so we thought ‘oh that’s never going to happen’ and then they reached out to us saying they loved the film and wanted to pick it up. So that’s where it started.

I’m sure you guys saw on Twitter around the time of American Thanksgiving, Ava tweeted about the film and it actually became a trending topic on Twitter. What do you think it is about the film that’s resonating with people who might not necessarily come from the same background or even the same country?

EMT: It’s been so wonderful to see the film resonate with audiences everywhere. We were really curious about how it would go over in Berlin, how a German international audience would relate to this story about two Indigenous women in Canada but ever since then we’ve come to see the overwhelming number of people who relate to the story on a personal level whether it be Aila’s perspective or Rosie’s or both. That’s been really incredible. Kathleen has said this before, that specificities have universal appeal. And because it is such a specific story, it is resonating on a more universal level.

Where does the title of the film come from?

EMT: It actually comes from an essay of the same title by Billy-Ray Belcourt, a brilliant young queer Cree poet and scholar and writer. He wrote the essay for Arts Everywhere magazine, in response to Tanya Lukin Linklater’s video work and it’s hard to firm up what the essay is about in just a few sentences because it is such a dense, rich piece of writing that covers so many things. But it essentially looks at the ways that Indigenous bodies carry this legacy of colonialism and the ways that Indigenous artists are expected to create work that imagines a reality where we’ve moved on, where we’ve reconciled, where everything’s okay but we’re not there yet. There’s so much work to do. So it resonated with us for a lot of reasons. For me it’s specifically in regards to women’s bodies. There are two ways to look at it. One is that Indigenous women’s bodies have been a site for settler colonial violence since contact and it’s been a strategy to disempower our communities and our families and our nation, but [our] bodies have also been sites of strength and love and they are the reason that our communities have survived. So it’s about all of those things.

I think it was important for this film to be set in present day, because like you said it’s really easy for people to pretend or try to convince themselves that these are problems that belong in the past. What do both of you hope viewers take away from this movie?

KH: One of the main things we want people to come away with is just how complex the situation is for women living with Intimate Partner Violence and how it’s not as easy as just leaving. There are a lot of other factors to consider. One of the major ones is the rate of murder in domestic violence situations, which often occurs after the person tries to leave the situation. In a lot of ways it is safer to remain in the relationship but also you know, there’s the complication that these relationships are not just built on violence, there are other aspects to them and there is love. So it’s not so black and white. And also, so much work goes into trying to navigate the situation from a female perspective. It doesn’t end when the violence ends, it carries through their day to day lives.

EMT: Something that we thought about and were very careful about was how to represent the women who worked in the safe house [that she took Rosie to]. In that original experience I had, there were a few moments when I was actually kind of frustrated and angry with them because I felt they weren’t encouraging her hard enough to stay but I realized that was naive because these women deal with women in situations like this every day and they’re so familiar with it and they understand how to navigate through the complexities of that. And also that ultimately it’s a woman’s choice if she wants to stay or she wants to go and it’s really important to respect her agency and her choice. So we wanted to authentically represent frontline workers who deal with this stuff day in and day out and show how challenging navigating these situations can be and that everybody’s story is different.