Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy chronicles the opioid crisis facing the people of the Kainai First Nation and how “harm reduction” practices can save them.
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens on a herd of buffalo grazing against the gorgeous landscape of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta. As we watch a mother and child buffalo nuzzle against each other, the soundtrack mingles a gentle score with the sounds of a woman speaking to a newborn baby. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s Kímmapiiyipitssini is a documentary about the opioid crisis ravaging Tailfeathers’s own community of the Kainai First Nation. It’s fitting that a film that approaches that topic with such empathy and humanism doesn’t begin with sensationalised imagery of harm, but images and sounds of parental love and caring.
In Tailfeathers’s own words, “Kímmapiiyipitssini is this Blackfoot teaching that we give empathy and kindness as a means for survival.” In keeping with this teaching, her film advocates for the controversial practice of “harm reduction” as a more humane and effective way to treat those who live with substance use disorder. As Tailfeathers explains in voiceover, the most common practice of treating addiction is preaching abstinence, perpetuated by guidance like twelve step programs. But that simply isn’t realistic for many people addicted to strong and deadly substances like fentanyl, which entered Tailfeathers’s community seven years ago and has since caused countless deaths by overdose. Harm reduction advocates that patients be provided an alternative drug that’s safer and easier to regulate, so that they can continue their daily lives without painful withdrawal symptoms.
Tailfeathers’s film, which was made over the course of five years, is thorough and comprehensive, helping us to understand both the big and little picture of the opioid crisis. We’re invited to observe the work of organisations and individuals who aim to implement harm reduction, including Tailfeathers’s physician mother, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers. We learn how substance use disorder affects individuals through the intimate, personal stories Tailfeathers threads throughout the film, and see how harm reduction practices improve their lives. Crucially, Tailfeathers doesn’t just present their struggle as given, as if it’s a coincidence that this crisis is affecting Indigenous people; she provides an overview of how centuries of colonial violence has rippled through to the present day.
Kainai and Sámi filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is a force to be reckoned with, both in the worlds of filmmaking and acting. She recently starred in the Indigenous sci-fi film Night Raiders, directed by Danis Goulet, which premiered at the Berlinale. In 2019, she made her fiction directorial debut, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which she starred in and co-directed with Kathleen Hepburn. We invited both of them on to a Lockdown Film School masterclass last year, in which they shared fascinating insights, including their shared interest in “non-extractive” forms of filmmaking.
Tailfeathers’ commitment to non-extractive filmmaking carries on into Kímmapiiyipitssini. Tailfeathers spent a year researching the film before she even picked up a camera: watching films and listening to podcasts about addiction, speaking with experts, and asking people with substance use disorder how they would like to be depicted. It was of utmost importance to her that Kímmapiiyipitssini be a healing, constructive film, rather than just perpetuating stereotypes about addiction.
After the world premiere of Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy at HotDocs, where it won the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award and shared the Rogers Audience Award, I spoke with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers about the film. She discussed the challenge of creating a structure, incorporating the viewpoints of her participants, and the road forward for Kímmapiiyipitssini.
Seventh Row (7R): When and how did you decide to tell this story as a documentary?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: My mother [Dr. Esther Tailfeathers] is a physician on the reserve. She’s one of the few medical doctors there. Illicit fentanyl hit our community seven years ago. I was hearing from her about what she was witnessing on the front lines, and I was also witnessing the immense grief that was being felt throughout the community.
When I was watching the news media and their coverage of my community, it was often framed through a lens of tragedy and trauma. That’s important, but there was almost no focus on all of the hard work that was happening within the community: all of the mobilization and organizing. I felt a responsibility and an urgency as a community member to document what was happening. I’m immensely proud of where I come from. I wanted the outside world to know about the strength of my community and to know what was happening there.
7R: I gather you filmed over a period of four years?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I worked on this film for five years, and we were filming for close to four years.
7R: What was that process like? What was your plan for how to shoot the film, what you wanted to capture, and how to present it?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I didn’t really know. I kind of went with my intuition in terms of what needed to be covered and whose stories needed to be told. It was really important to me, as a community member, to provide the audience the opportunity to witness the multitude of lived experiences and voices within my community. Over fifty people are in front of the camera. It’s a two-hour-long film.
[The film] explores the way that my community has implemented harm reduction, which is something that’s not widely accepted within my community, or even in other places. It’s a controversial approach to treatment. There’s so many people who didn’t end up in the film, which was a real challenge just trying to decide how to most efficiently tell this story in two hours. So many people were so generous sharing their story. Not being able to include them in the film was pretty heartbreaking.
7R: Were you editing as you shot or did the editing mostly happen afterwards?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: Some of the editing happened while we shot, but it wasn’t that we were editing the feature. It’s actually because we were editing short films. My mother and a group of women from my community who all work in health came up to Vancouver and visited the Downtown Eastside. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is one of the global leaders in harm reduction programming and policies.
We visited a number of harm reduction agencies and programs. While we were doing so, my mom asked me if there was any way that we could get access to this footage within the community as soon as possible. She knows how long it takes to make a film, and she knew that it would be a long time before people would actually be able to see what we were filming. I asked my producer at the NFB, David Christensen, if there was a way that we could cut together some short, utilitarian films for the community’s use. And so we did.
We made around seven or eight short films that covered what we were learning in the Downtown Eastside. They also covered some stories from within the community, [following] people who were living with substance use disorder or who were in recovery. We made these shorts, which actually appear [in the film]: we see those shorts being implemented within the community.
7R: How did you think about crafting the opening of the film?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: The film opens with a small herd of buffalo. We see buffalo calves playing with their mothers. To me, the buffalo represent hope, love, regeneration, and reclamation of the land. Blackfoot people had a relationship with buffalo for thousands and thousands of years. They upheld us, as a people, in every way. They were more than just food. They were an economy and a way of surviving and thriving as a people.
And then the buffalo were systematically massacred by settlers to the point where it devastated our entire way of being and rendered us basically incapable of moving forward without building a relationship of dependency with the state. That was the initial stage in a state designed culture of poverty and dependency within our people. [In the film,] there is this return of the buffalo to the land and to our community. It’s just so beautiful to see them coming back and to see the cultural regeneration that’s happening.
In opening the film, I wanted to ground in the audience a sense of hope and love. There’s this common theme of motherhood and families and the love that we have for family throughout the film. I felt that by starting off with this dreamy [soundscape] of my mother’s voice speaking to a baby, and seeing these buffalo calves and their mothers on screen, on our beautiful territory, one of the most beautiful places in the world… Rather than starting off on a note of tragedy — and the story is tragic — it filled me with immense hope and pride and strength.
7R: The film deftly balances the bigger picture history of colonial violence, the scenes of community organising, and the intimate personal stories of drug addiction. What challenges did that pose in the edit?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: It was such a challenge to figure out how to cohesively put all of that into a film. In making this film, I discovered that it’s really impossible to separate [the story of the opioid crisis] from the history of colonialism in Canada and the ways that it has historically impacted our people. It’s also impossible to separate it from the ongoing inequity and injustice in this country. As I learned more about substance use disorder, I learned that so much of it has to do with other social determinants of health, like access to safe, stable housing, and access to employment. So many of our people are living in poverty, and poverty directly influences addiction within Indigenous communities, in many cases.
I finally came to the conclusion that I had to narrate, which I was really opposed to. But I realised that it was necessary because I’m trying to fit so much into one film. I needed a connective tissue to make it all work. My mother’s voice could serve as that connective tissue. We were doing some pickups last summer, and I sat down with my mom and did a quick thirty-minute interview that was just audio. There’s quite a few little segments from that interview [in the film].
7R: I think your narration feels fitting because you have such a personal connection to what you’re talking about. While watching Kímmapiiyipitssini, I thought a lot about how “issue docs” often try to create the illusion of objectivity. But that’s obviously not the case here. You foreground your personal connection to what’s happening in the film and you even appear on camera, as well as in voiceover. How did you think about how much to include yourself and your own story in the film?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: At first, I was really hesitant to be part of the film, in front of the camera. But I realized that, in asking my documentary participants to appear in front of the camera, I was asking a lot of them. You’re very vulnerable in front of the camera. It can feel so artificial to have a film crew in your personal space [while you] try to go on with your life. I felt that, in order to make them more comfortable, it made sense for me to also be in front of the camera.
Also, a year into making the film, my cousin passed away from an overdose. Our family is really close-knit, and it was a devastating loss for us. It changed everything for our family. In that grief, the issue in the film became so much more immediate for me as the filmmaker. It was really debilitating for quite a while. I took some time off from making the film.
I felt like I needed to do something productive with that grief. I couldn’t just let it sit there. So it became part of the story and also part of my explanation, as a filmmaker and as a community member, as to why I’m such a strong supporter of harm reduction. It could have saved my cousin’s life. That’s undeniable.
7R: Did you find putting that story on screen to be a healing experience?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: To some degree. I don’t know. I feel conflicted about the possibility for healing within film. I don’t know if it was necessarily healing, but I do think that it at least honours my cousin’s life in a tangible way. There’s some lasting legacy to her memory and who she was.
I have heard from others who’ve watched the film that it allowed them to better understand their own family members’ struggles with substance use disorder. It also helped them process their grief over losing family members to substance use disorder.
7R: The film intimately follows several individuals with substance use disorder as they attempt to access treatment. How did you approach filming those people in a way that respected their consent and boundaries?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: That was really challenging. I felt very conflicted about it. In development, I watched as many films and listened to as many podcasts about addiction as I could find. Often, when we see addiction on screen, it’s very sensationalized. We see them at their worst. We will sometimes see drug use on screen. There isn’t necessarily a lot of dignity that is offered to those people. I wanted this to not be that.
In that time when I was developing and researching, I was spending a lot of time with people who work on the frontlines of this crisis, and also just learning from people who live with substance use disorder. That really demystified and dismantled my own internalized attitudes towards addiction. The people who really helped me understand it in this way was the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS). That’s a grassroots community organization that’s connected to the Vancouver area network of drug users. The people who belong to WAHRS are Indigenous people who use drugs and alcohol and are very political in advocating for dignity and respect. Spending time with them was so crucial to gaining a better understanding of what addiction is and how we can portray it in film and television in a way that’s not just perpetuating these really gross, sensationalized portraits of drug users.
It was crucial to centre their voices in a way that isn’t paternalistic. We value their voices in the conversation around finding solutions. Many people were very generous in allowing me to film them, and many people really wanted to share their stories. They wanted a place to put them.
It was a process of building relationships of trust and respect, and having many conversations with people before ever putting a camera in front of them. What do you want people to know about you? What do you want people to know about substance use disorder? What do you want people to know about this community? What solutions do you think we need? What’s missing from the narrative? All of those questions were critical in shaping how I told their stories and how they were depicted on screen.
I showed all of my participants an earlier cut to make sure that they were comfortable with the way that they were depicted on screen. Everybody was happy with it in the end. It was a really deep process of learning and recognizing my power and privilege as a filmmaker. I have never worked with substance use disorder, and it’s something that I do not understand on a lived experience level. I have the responsibility to learn from and listen to the people who do have that lived experience. A camera can also be a weapon.
It meant applying the concept of “Kímmapiiyipitssini,” which is this Blackfoot teaching that we give empathy and kindness as a means for survival. I had to think about Kímmapiiyipitssini as a process of filmmaking. How do I do this in a way that does no harm to my community and to my participants?
As a community member, I can’t walk away from my community at the end of this project. Ultimately, I have to be accountable to my own community and my own family. Accountability means being deeply respectful of my community and recognizing that there’s a multitude of voices and lived experiences that I need to honour and respect.
7R: I’ve heard you speak about how you didn’t learn filmmaking in film school so you’re not necessarily following the traditionally taught rules when you make films. How has that shaped the way you make films?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I think it helps that I didn’t really study film production or filmmaking, because it means I haven’t necessarily learned the industry standards for things. I’m just one of many voices who are saying that the way things are done in the industry isn’t necessarily the right way to do things. Standard operating procedures and standard ways of working were created largely by white men. In many cases, those ways of operating can be really damaging, and are also just not really necessary. I strive to make work that is at least somewhat a service to my community and that doesn’t replicate the harmful forms of filmmaking that we see and know so well in this industry. Not going to film school, I am able to do things differently, because I am doing them my own way.
7R: I understand that you were a majority co-producer of Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy with the NFB. Why was that important to you? What opportunities did it afford you?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: The film started off as a short film, actually. I applied to the HotDocs CrossCurrents fund to make a short film and then realized very quickly that it needed to be a feature. Then, I approached the NFB about supporting the film. It actually turned into a minority co-production with the NFB, which is really rare.
I went through the standard procedure of making a film with the NFB being the majority producer on the project. But when we reached the edit, I realized that I wanted to be able to protect and care for these stories and the footage in a way that an institution like the NFB just can’t, because it’s not their community. They’re not a community. They’re an institution that is ultimately funded by the Canadian government. I felt this real need and responsibility to protect all of those stories that were so generously offered to me as a filmmaker.
I reached out to my friend, Lori Lozinski, who was one of the producers on The Body Remembers [When the World Broke Open], to see if she’d be willing to help guide me through the process of becoming a majority producer on this project. I applied to TeleFilm and was successful through their Indigenous stream. I became the majority co-producer with my company.
With an institution like the NFB, when it’s a primarily NFB production, or a full NFB production, they own [the film]. I felt like I needed to maintain control over all of that in order to protect those stories.
7R: Who did you think of as the audience for this film?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I made this with the intention of it being a useful educational tool for my own community to generate dialogue within the community. a And then, hopefully, [a tool for] other Indigenous communities who are experiencing the same thing. I felt like this film needed to serve as an educational tool. And then obviously, more broadly, just for Canadians to understand the legacy of settler colonialism and how it directly correlates with addiction and a state of unwellness within our communities.
Harm reduction is still kind of a contentious issue within the community. It’s very divisive. There’s a lot of people who are for it, and a lot of people who aren’t, and also just a lot of misinformation about what harm reduction is.
7R: What are your plans going forward with Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy to get it seen by your community?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: We’re building an impact campaign. I don’t really know anything about building impact campaigns, but we have some wonderful people helping us and some support from the Inspirit Foundation.
[The campaign is] about figuring out how to get [the film] into communities, primarily Indigenous communities, and figuring out how to get it in front of the eyes of people who can shape and affect policy in Canada. We also want to make sure that it’s presented in educational settings. I think this film is a really wonderful tool for dialogue.
7R: What are you working on next?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I’m working on the second draft of my next narrative feature, which is a queer environmental thriller that’s a little bit scary and kind of funny. It’s an adaptation of a novella by Ellen van Neerven, who’s an Indigenous Australian author. I’m really excited to try something so weird and different. It’s kind of a huge departure.
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