Co-directors and co-writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (who also stars) and Kathleen Hepburn discuss telling Indigenous stories and telling a story in real time. Read our TIFF19 review.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a rare film: not only does it centre women’s often invisible experiences, but it also features a cross-cultural encounter between two Indigenous women from different nations and socio-economic backgrounds. We first meet Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) in a doctor’s office where she’s having an IUD inserted; we stay with her as she changes into a gown, goes through the procedure, and prepares to leave — finding meaning in the empty spaces and minutiae, which will define the film. On her way home, Áila spots Rosie (Violet Nelson) a young, pregnant Indigenous woman, on the street who is barefoot and distressed.
Áila invites Rosie home to offer her shoes, clothes, and comfort, and the film follows the pair in real-time during this encounter. As a Sami woman, Áila feels connected to Rosie’s experience as an Indigenous woman, but Áila also has much more privilege: she’s middle class rather than just out of foster care, and she’s also white-passing. This makes Rosie distrustful of her, no matter how sincerely Áila wants to help; to Rosie, it’s too reminiscent of her experiences with white settlers. Because Rosie is a survivor of abuse, Áila wants to help her get out of her unsafe domestic situation, but effecting change is more complicated than Áila first anticipates.
The Body Remembers is itself a product of collaboration between two women, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (on whom Áila is based) and Kathleen Hepburn, who co-wrote and co-directed the film. Together, they’ve crafted a smart and sensitive film about two very complex and realistic women. The film was picked up for US distribution by Ava DuVernay’s ArrayNow, which has made it available worldwide (outside of Canada) on Netflix. It opens theatrically in Canada this week. In anticipation of the film’s Toronto release, I talked with Tailfeathers and Hepburn about collaborating, telling Indigenous stories, representing class, and the challenges of telling a story in real-time.
7R: What made you want to tell this story and how did you both get involved?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: The film is inspired by an experience that I had. It’s very similar to the one in the film but we fictionalized it and the characters. As a filmmaker, before this, I primarily had experience directing documentary. I knew that I wanted to tell this story in real time.
I knew that collaborating with someone with more experience with narrative fiction would only serve to improve the quality of the work, and I would also have the opportunity to learn. I find collaboration to be very enriching. Kathleen has been a friend for a while and I deeply admire her work and who she is as a person. I knew that the project would benefit from collaborating with Kathleen, specifically, so I reached out to ask Kathleen if she would like to co-write and co-direct. That’s how our relationship started.
7R: What was the process for writing The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open together?
Kathleen Hepburn: It was pretty organic. We didn’t have a strategy or a plan. Everything was happening really quickly so we just dove in head first and started writing. Because it was based on an actual event, Máijá had a pretty strong treatment to start with, so we were finding ways to fictionalize the characters and separate them from the real event a bit and also to add all of these complex layers.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: Kathleen is such a phenomenally talented writer. This was my first time doing a narrative feature. I think I often had a tendency to want to put too much on the page so working with Kathleen was a really wonderful experience. Kathleen has this beautiful ability to work with nuance and simplicity on the page.
We wanted to include larger themes that didn’t actually exist within that original experience. Something that was really important to both of us was to speak about the issue of Indigenous youth in foster care. It’s a massive issue in Canada. We wrote Rosie (Violet Nelson) as this young woman who had aged out of foster care very recently and had been deeply impacted by the system. She’s kind of the embodiment of generations of families fractured through child removal [which is the legacy of colonialism], be it through residential schools or foster care. There were a lot of things that we wanted to include within the story that needed to come from a place of fiction.
7R: You mentioned you knew you wanted to tell the story in real time. What made you want to do that, and how did you approach how you were going to do that?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: It was ultimately about honouring that original experience which was very short. I encountered this young woman who was in distress. I spent a few hours with her, and then I never saw her again. That experience really left a deep and profound impact on me.
Sometimes, we have these collisions with strangers that really fundamentally alter us. I carried that story with me for years, not really sure what to do with it, and ultimately, decided I wanted to honour her story and our shared experience on that day. At first, I thought maybe this could be a short film, but I realized there was so much there in those moments of silence between us and these moments where nothing was being said, but so much was being communicated. I figured it could be a very powerful feature film if we just allowed the audience to simply sit with that experience. Wanting to shoot it in real time was also one of the impetuses for wanting to collaborate, and then the idea of the continuous take came later on.
Kathleen Hepburn: There were a couple reasons why that was important. We thought about just doing the real time idea, but it became very clear early on that to try to do it in a continuous take would really push us to the next level in terms of creating something that was really honest and held the tension that we wanted to create in this narrative in a feature-length form. We felt it just adds so much, creating conflict and tension and drama for the audience. But we also felt it was the best way for the actors and the crew to experience the moment, the temporality of the original incident, and to give them the full emotional journey in one take.
We did the film five times over five days, so one take a day for an hour and half, and that was it; we’d move on to the next day. It was a really different experience and a different way of thinking about shooting. I think it really raised the stakes for everybody involved and made for some very authentic performances and some really beautiful accidents.
7R: How did that affect your location scouting? You really do get a sense of the city of Vancouver in the film, and you have to travel around while you are doing one take.
Kathleen Hepburn: Yeah, it was a very complicated dance to find locations in one area that made sense for the timing of the script. We had a giant map of East Van [Vancouver] on the wall, and we were sort of trying to build our journey in a way that fit the timing of the script. It was very complicated. We had one location that became too complicated, and we had to switch last minute. But it was fun. It was a heightened challenge, and everybody had to reimagine what production looks like, particularly our AD [Assistant Director] team.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: It was definitely a mental challenge for everybody. There was this really funny moment where our DP drove us around from location to location, and Kathleen and I were in the back seat, reading the script, timing it out, making sure that we could get between the locations before the film mag ran out. Because it was shot on 16mm, we had all these transition points, and we had to make sure we stuck within 10 minutes because the film mag would run out at 11 minutes. There was this funny day where we were driving from location to location, timing out the conversations with traffic at that time of day, and it was a circus, at times.
7R: Could you tell me a bit about the design of the apartment for your character, Máijá? I felt like we really got a sense of who she is from it.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: We had an incredible art department. The production designers were incredible. So we wanted to be able to build this conversation around class within the Indigenous community — and just class in general — and the way it impacts women’s lives. In particular, the way it impacts our bodies and our ability to choose. Áila is a heightened version of me: my apartment isn’t that nice, and I wasn’t in the same financial situation as her, but I was definitely much more privileged than this young woman when it came to my class.
Áila’s apartment is meant to be this breath of fresh air, but also feel like this space where a woman has had the privilege and ability to thrive because she has the necessary resources and support. Rosie’s apartment is social housing in East Vancouver, and the apartment was completely empty. Our production designer and art team built that world, and it was meant to feel very lived in and wasn’t perceived through this lens of poverty.
I think, often, when we are looking at Indigenous people on-screen, there is this need or desire by outsiders to frame us through this lens of poverty and trauma and victimhood, and it’s so much more complicated than that. That’s a deep misrepresentation of who we are and the complexities of human experience. We wanted Rosie’s apartment to feel like a place that was lived in and a place where there is love. But there is also the violence that happens there in all of its many forms. We wanted to have a real juxtaposition between Rosie’s and Áila’s apartments, but that both places feel lived in, and that love can exist in both situations.
7R: Were there other key elements for telling that story about class?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: Absolutely. Áila is someone who is university educated and is middle class. We imagined that she has a steady job working for the government. There was so much our production design team put into that space.
One thing that really resonates with me is the books. There’s quite a few books that you will see in the background that are written by prominent Indigenous writers and thinkers that impacted our thinking around telling this story and also impacted me, as an Indigenous woman. It was a way of honouring those texts and that literature and also bringing into the forefront this long history of Indigenous resistance. It is so much more complicated than the need to frame Indigenous people through victimhood. There is resistance, and there has been resistance for a very long time. Our culture is rich in so many ways, including literature and the written word.
There were so many beautiful pieces of art that were created by Indigenous artists — Indigenous women, in particular — and we were so lucky to be able to feature that artwork. That space is meant to feel like a space where an Indigenous woman has had the ability to thrive and were she is surrounded by art and literature that comes from our own people and our own voices.
Kathleen Hepburn: The only thing I’d add in terms of representing that privilege would be the IUD scene where she [Áila] obviously has the financial means to get a contraceptive device, which is something Rosie doesn’t have access to, or she wouldn’t know how to access those resources. The idea of choosing is another form of privilege.
7R: For me, it was really powerful all this time that we got to spend alone with each of the characters in private spaces, often in a bathroom, where you could see them recovering from what happened or thinking things through. How did you approach those scenes, and how did you decide whom to stay with?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: We rehearsed for four weeks with Violet, and there were so many things to consider about who the lens would be focusing on. Initially, we thought this would just be from Rosie’s point of view, and then we realized it was about both women’s experiences. We made a lot of careful, conscious decisions about who would be the focus in which moment, who would be in power in each moment, and who would have control and agency. Being able to sit in the intimacy of that private space was really important for us.
As an actor, it was a profound experience to be able to marry my experience with theatre and with film; having this long rehearsal process was inspired by theatre. There were so many moments that Kathleen called beautiful accidents because of the luxury of being able to rehearse for four weeks. A lot of those decisions, about where the camera would be and who it would be with, were often made in the rehearsal process. We had the ability to refine the script in those moments and to work with our DP to really figure out where to put the camera in each moment.
Kathleen Hepburn: With the bathroom scenes, I recently read a review where this person was complaining about the changing of the pad scene and why we needed to be there with her. But it was important to show that. There were layers to that scene, but we wanted to remind the viewers that Áila has things going on in her life beyond this moment — and also because, as women, we don’t get to see that represented on screen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman change her pad on camera in this real-time way. For us, it was a tiny, tiny act of pushback against the male gaze and showing all of these private spaces and the trauma that our bodies experience on a monthly basis.
7R: Was the DP Norm Li involved with rehearsals?
Kathleen Hepburn: We had four weeks of just cast, and then we brought Norm [Li] in the last week to start choreographing our blocking. He could see the action that we had been working with, and we spent quite a bit of time with him detailing the character’s action in the rehearsal space, and then we had a full week of full crew rehearsal to get everything fine tuned on the actual sets. It was a really important conversation with him in terms of whose scene is it, who do we stay with, why and who has the power in each moment? So making those choices about how close to be and who to linger with and who do we follow when one leaves the room — those were all conversations we had with Norm.
7R: I imagine the sound in the film was a technical challenge.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I’m so glad you brought that up because so often we’re talking about the camera, but the technical proficiency required to pull off the sound in the film is so underappreciated. Our sound guy [Ingar Pedersen] was the only person on our crew who had done a single take film before, he had done it twice [one was Seventh Row favourite Blind Spot].
It was very complicated, as I think, at one point, he had twelve lav mics running at once, and then a boom. We’re so lucky to have had him around. We valued silence in telling the story. There was so much said in the silence, so that was something we needed to think about. Our sound designer was incredible. He’s also Norwegian, and that was kind of complicated because sounds are different in Vancouver than Oslo. It was kind of funny having to work through how sound is different on opposite ends of the world.
Kathleen Hepburn: In the sound design, we wanted to accentuate that difference in space. I’m thinking of one example, coming into Áila’s apartment, when you go from this street scene where we have a lot of violent, ambient noise, like sirens and constructions and traffic, coming up into a space that was supposed to feel very open, a moment to breathe — so working with the rain and more natural sounds, you know, birds. But when we are with Rosie in the bathroom, things shift slightly in the background ambience. Because she’s not feeling comfortable in this space, there’s a change in the kinds of sounds we hear outside, which are a little more tense. We were using sound in a way we might have used editing had we done it in a more traditional fashion, but we didn’t have that to work with.
7R: Were there specific things you did to make the film sound like Vancouver?
Kathleen Hepburn: Yeah. We used a lot of natural recordings. Our sound designer, [Håkon Lammetun], did come for a few days during the shoot time, and he recorded a lot of ambience there. We had the train, which was a very important sound, and the types of birds we chose were very specific.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: Rain.
Kathleen Hepburn: Windshield wipers
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: So often, the city of Vancouver is not really Vancouver in film. We don’t really get to see Vancouver as it is on film, especially East Vancouver, and that was very important to us because it’s a place where we both lived. Kathleen grew up in Vancouver, and I’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life. East Vancouver is a very complicated place.
Vancouver, as a whole, is unceded territory. The local host nation’s territory has been urbanized. There’s also a really beautiful thriving urban Indigenous community with people from all over — and then the complexities of gentrification and where we are as artists in this site of gentrification. It’s a very rapidly changing urban landscape, and we wanted to be able to include all of that — the richness and complexities of East Vancouver.
7R: You’re wearing so many hats in this, Máijá. How do you direct yourself? And how did you two collaborate? I imagine it’s helpful to have a collaborator when you are in most of the scenes?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: As I mentioned, Kathleen is someone who’s work I deeply admire. She’s definitely an actor’s director. Seeing what she was to able to do with Never Steady, Never Still (2017) just blew me away. It’s such a beautifully moving work of art, something you feel.
In terms of working with Kathleen, it was a wonderful experience. Initially, I didn’t think I would act in the film because I wanted to be able to fully experience directing, and it’s really complicated to act and direct at the same time. So a lot of the directing came in prep and rehearsal. In this four-week rehearsal process, Kathleen and I were able to really work through our directing decisions, and then I was also able to spend time with the text as an actor and work with Violet, who is so stunning. Believe it or not, but she’s never acted before, so that time we spent with her was really wonderful.
Our working relationship was very organic. We didn’t really have a specific process in mind other than we are going to spend this time rehearsing, or we are going to spend this time doing this. I wore a lot of hats, but it was also such a beautifully collaborative process. We had such an incredible cast and crew.
We had this Indigenous youth mentorship project which was so fundamental to the community and the grassroots approach we took to making this film. Film is often so extractive in terms of representing stories of marginalized people on screen, and we wanted this to not be that in any way. We wanted to build community and make sure we were not simply just extracting from the community the stories we were telling on screen.
We hired 11 Indigenous young people in all of our key departments, and they were there throughout the production process,some during pre-production, some in post. Having them there also made everything a little bit different. It grounded us in something real and reminded us of our responsibility to tell this story in the best way possible, in terms of being part of a community. Kathleen and I worked very hard on building a sense of responsibility and respect within our cast and crew.
7R: Can you tell me a bit about the music and the song at the end of the film?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: The song [Mommy’s Little Guy] is by Fawn Wood, who is an Indigenous woman. The song just really resonated with us. We used it in the rehearsal process as a way to ground ourselves. During the writing process, Kathleen and I felt like we were missing something at one moment, that there was a key element of the script that was really missing, and we came to the realization that it was ultimately about the love between Rosie and her baby. That is what we needed to consistently honour in the story. That song resonated with that theme in every way. It became a part of our rehearsal process and had a deeper meaning for us.
7R: I know you premiered The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open at Berlin and then played it at TIFF. I’m wondering about how you found it was helpful for reception? At Seventh Row, we’re very interested and invested in how we get Canadian films, especially Canadian Indigenous films seen.
Kathleen Hepburn: The film community is still so much about validation, in a lot of ways, and name recognition. Having that stamp of approval from a festival like Berlin is a huge step in getting people’s ears to perk up. You really notice it in conversations with people about the film, and they say, “Oh, is this your first screening?” and we say, “No, we premiered in Berlin” and suddenly you can see the physical shift. I think it is hugely important in reaching more eyes. TIFF is a great festival in creating buzz around the project
But I think what’s been the most amazing for us, so far, is our recent acquisition by Array Releasing, which is Ava DuVernay’s company. We just recently went out to LA and met the team. It was such an incredible experience just to have a group of people who are so professional, so good at their job, but also so invested in the heart of what this project is about, creating space for marginalized voices and really knowing how to access an audience that traditional distributors just don’t quite know how to reach.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I think it’s complicated, as an Indigenous person, because festivals are so often inaccessible. Even the craft of filmmaking is, in a sense, elitist and inaccessible. To be able to make films is an absolute privilege; you have to come from some form of privilege to be able to be a filmmaker, and festivals in and of themselves are often inaccessible to the general public, to the people who you want to see the film. So it means a lot to screen in these places because it elevates the film in terms of the general film community and the longevity of the film.
But it’s also kind of complicated coming from a marginalized community and knowing that you want your own people to be able to see this film. As Kathleen was saying, it’s really great working with Array because they understand the need for our own communities to be able to access these films, in a way traditional distributor’s don’t really get.
7R: What was different that they did that you found helpful?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: They understood right away that there are other ways of getting the film out there to audiences. They are very grassroots and community-oriented. They have already built relationships with educational institutions and community organizations. It’s really fantastic knowing the film is going to be screening in alternative spaces that are more accessible to the community.