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Gender + Sexuality

One Afternoon, Two Indigenous Women and an East Van Film You Feel in Your Guts

We talk to the visionary makers of ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.’

Dorothy Woodend 1 Nov 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture critic. Reach her here.

To live in a female body is often to exist in a state of pain.

It’s rare to see a film that captures this reality, but The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open does exactly that. It’s a film that you feel as much as you watch.

If you’re female, you feel it in your guts — in the twisting pain of uterine cramps, the thumping kick of a baby or the ticklish sensation of Braxton Hicks contractions.

On the surface, the film is deceptively simple — two women, leading deeply different lives, come together in real time over a single afternoon.

Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) lives with her boyfriend in a nice apartment in Vancouver. With her well-cut camel coat and neat hair, she appears an upwardly middle-class professional. In the film’s opening prologue she’s having an IUD inserted, explaining to the doctor that she’s not ready to have children. A sense of tightly wound control permeates her interactions. She’s clear and precise in her communication, but sadness drapes her like a fog.

Elsewhere in the city, a heavily pregnant young woman named Rosie (Violet Nelson) is living with her violent boyfriend and his elderly mother in a shabby apartment. While the pair watches TV in the living room, a man’s voice can be heard, furious and rage-soaked, in another room.

Both women are Indigenous. Rosie is Kwakwaka’wakw, and Áila is Blackfoot and Sami.

On her way home from the clinic, Áila comes across Rosie, bloody and beaten, standing shoeless in the rain. Across the street, Rosie’s boyfriend is screaming invective. In an instant decision, Áila takes the younger woman by the hand and they flee, like fairy tale children, making their way to Áila’s apartment. And then things take a turn as one life intersects with another, bodies ricocheting off each, opening up new directions.

In the dishwater-light of a dreary Vancouver afternoon, the pair shares small fragments of information. In halting bits of conversation, stories of family, relationships and history are offered, along with tea and bagels. While Rosie changes into dry clothes, Áila tries to help, calling shelters and looking for a place for Rosie to stay. As they circumnavigate each other in a delicate, intricate series of retreats, feints and cautious acceptance, their differences and commonalities become more apparent.

The title of the film is taken from an essay by Indigenous poet Billy-Ray Belcourt. But another sentence in Belcourt’s essay equally pertains: “A body can only jar so many spirits and trauma before it glitches, leaks, and splits at the seams.”

When I ask co-directors Tailfeathers (who plays Áila) and Kathleen Hepburn why they chose the title, their answers are different but intertwined — it’s about trauma living through the body, beauty, love and the hurt of reality.

After its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival last spring, The Body Remembers screened across Canada, winning awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival and imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto. The company of famed director Ava DuVernay picked up worldwide rights, and the film starts its theatrical run today at the Vancity Theatre.

851px version of BodyRemembersFilm.jpg
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last spring to great acclaim.

In reading reviews of the film, I noticed a clear divide in how men and women saw it. Male critics tended to address the technical aspects, whereas women revisited moments in their own lives, decisions made about whether to intervene in situations of violence or not.

Such a decision was the inciting incident for the story. When Tailfeathers came across a young woman in her East Vancouver neighbourhood, a situation similar to that in the film unfolded. So why did she decide to help another woman?

“It’s a question that comes up frequently at screenings,” she said. “I grew up middle class in a stable household, no foster care, with a sense of community. I had to deal with my own sense of privilege. I recognized this woman as kin. It was a deep confrontation with identity. It’s so complex, this exchange with a stranger, but stopping was the obvious thing to do.”

She explains that it wasn’t just about personal choice but a deeper sense of connection, the pull of kinship with people struggling. “You know why it took generations for her to get to that point, this collective experience and the strength to survive settler colonialism. The strength of Indigenous people is exceptional.”

Tailfeathers agrees women seem to understand the film more intimately. The film makes deliberate counterpoint of the characters’ physical realities, contrasting the ripe swell of Rosie’s pregnant belly with the blood and cramping brought on by Áila’s new IUD. Truth comes sliding out in elisions, drips and drops of reality almost too painful to be spoken out loud. The language of bodies takes over, offering up a silent pas de deux between the two women.

Was it difficult for Tailfeathers to relive the experience of trying to help another woman in the grip of trauma?

“It was complicated, but we fictionalized quite a bit, although the core elements were the same, just more heightened. Áila’s character was more privileged than I was.” Tailfeathers explains that additional layers of the story implied Rosie’s involvement, as well as that of her unborn child, with the foster care system, folding in the bleak realities that many young Indigenous women face. As Tailfeathers says, kids age out of government care at 19, and “then you’re just out, [so consequently] young people are dying or turning to things like sex work.”

There are many uniquely female interactions in this film, whether it’s the two women pretending to be sisters, spinning tales of an imagined history for a cab driver, or the mammal comfort that comes from Rosie singing softly to her unborn child. Men are rarely seen; adjacent to the main action, they function mostly as precipitating agents. The meat of the story is female, both physically and spiritually.

The film also incorporates an unusual shooting style, immediate, immersive and discombobulating in its jagged intimacy. The decision to shoot in real time on 16mm film (with its 11 minutes per roll) required a form of relay. To create the feeling of unbroken action, cinematographer Norm Li handed off a still-running camera and picked up a freshly loaded one. The hand-offs required 12 carefully choreographed stitch points in order to create the feeling of one uninterrupted sequence. What emerges is a feeling of almost claustrophobic closeness, a sensation of being trapped that was deliberate.

“There were a number of reasons we shot it the way we did,” says Tailfeathers. “I wanted to co-write and co-direct, to try out story in real time. I’d worked a lot in both narrative and documentary, but this was technically challenging. I wanted the film to be the best it could be.”

Part of the project was the opportunity to collaborate with other women. “I reached out to Kathleen [Hepburn] because I really admired and respected her, and I wanted to take a collaborative approach to the project.” Tailfeathers and Hepburn included young Indigenous women in making the film, developing the script and post-production.

The film had a number of happy accidents, one of the most remarkable being Nelson’s performance. Nelson had never acted before. Her hesitancy, shyness and the uneasy aspect of her wounded soul don’t read as a performance, but as something innate and true.

The visceral physicality of the film reminded me of the work of visual artists like Rebecca Belmore or filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt and Lynne Ramsay. When asked about the filmmakers and artists she looks to, Tailfeathers says, “The Indigenous film community is really supportive,” citing Tasha Hubbard, Lisa Jackson and Danis Goulet as being among her influences and mentors.

As a filmmaking pair, Tailfeathers and Hepburn address different parts of the production. Hepburn (Never Steady, Never Still) has a lot to say about the aspects of creating such a complex and emotionally nuanced work. “It was totally new,” she said. “How to stage it so that the audience remained engaged throughout, without the tricks and tools of editing, there were very few tools to create tension.”

The production involved two days of conventional shooting for the opening prologue scenes.

The uninterrupted continuous take with the two principals took another five days of shooting. “The main reason was to create a feeling of authenticity, of an emotional journey, and to stay with characters. Also, we couldn’t have more than a few people on set,” said Hepburn. “Violet said that she forgot that the camera was even there.”

This quality of lived reality extends to the city. It’s rare to see a film set in Vancouver that genuinely captures the feeling of the place. There were a number of fortuitous moments, such as huge trucks roaring by on Clark Drive. “Beautiful accidents,” as Hepburn describes them. “It was important to make a film that felt really like East Vancouver, in all its authentic grittiness.”

Despite the ambiguity of the film’s end, Hepburn said that she sees something very positive emerge from the interaction of the two women. “The love between people, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking, but it’s a step towards getting out of the situation. There is hope in the ending.”

Tailfeathers said she never saw the young woman she tried to help again.

“I still think about her. I used to walk by her building, hoping to see her. The film was a way to communicate to her again. It’s not my story; it’s her story. The film was a way to honour that, to honour her and her experience.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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