Blackfoot filmmaker talks Sundance Institute honour, telling Indigenous stories

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers grew up on the southern Alberta Blood Reserve and currently lives in Vancouver. The filmmaker's most recent accolade is the Sundance Institute's Merata Mita Fellowship.

‘I'm still sort of stunned by the whole thing,’ Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers says

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is the third Indigenous film maker to be awarded the Merata Mita fellowship by the Sundance Institute. (Redworks Photography)

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers doesn't see herself as a role model.

The 32-year-old writer, actor and filmmaker grew up on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta and since making her first film seven years ago, she has made big waves in the Canadian film community.

Tailfeathers has been recognized with multiple awards including the 2014 Vancouver Mayor's Arts Awards.

Most recently, Tailfeathers was awarded the prestigious Sundance Institute's Merata Mita Fellowship — an honour bestowed upon an Indigenous filmmaker "from a global pool of nominees."

The fellowship means a cash grant and year-long support that includes mentorship and a trip to the Sundance Film Festival. Tailfeathers prides herself on telling stories from Indigenous communities and will put the fellowship money toward making her first narrative feature film.

​CBC News spoke to Tailfeathers from her home in Vancouver.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You were just honoured by the Sundance Institute with the Merata Mita fellowship, what does that mean?

A: Merata Mita was a phenomenal and iconic filmmaker in terms of Indigenous cinema. She was the first Mãori woman, in New Zealand, to direct a feature-length narrative film and she went on to create a lot of really important works.

So the fellowship honours her and her work and her legacy. This is the third year it's been awarded to an Indigenous filmmaker and they give the fellowship to an Indigenous filmmaker with a feature-length film in development. 

Q: What does it mean to you as an Indigenous woman to be honoured in this way?

A: The fellowship just sort of came out of left field, I wasn't expecting it. It's based on a nomination process, so it was a complete surprise to me and I'm still sort of stunned by the whole thing.

Merata Mita is an icon in terms of Indigenous cinema. Merata's work was de-colonial and it really spoke to Indigenous screen sovereignty and sovereignty as a whole. She really just created works that were so unconventional and really challenged the craft of cinema and the way that stories can be told, and I think she spoke to Indigenous methods and processes of making films and telling stories. 

I'm so grateful and deeply honoured to be the recipient of this fellowship, it means so much to me and it means a lot for our film in terms of the reach it will have. I'm just really excited about the road ahead.

Q: What is the feature film you are working on?

A: I'm gearing up to shoot my first narrative feature. I'm co-writing and co-directing with a Vancouver filmmaker, Kathleen Hepburn.

The film is called The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and that's a title borrowed from an essay by Billy Ray Belcourt, who is an Indigenous poet. Kathleen and I have been working on the script for over a year and the story is quite simple and inspired an experience that I had a few years ago where I encountered a young Indigenous woman who was eight months pregnant and had just fled domestic violence.

The story follows these two women living in the city who encounter each other on the street and one of them is fleeing domestic violence and the other realizes that she's not really equipped to help. It's an examination of the ways we respond to violence, particularly violence against Indigenous women, and it's also about the strength of Indigenous women. 

Q: I saw that you're also working on a documentary about the Blood Reserve and the opioid crisis, can you tell me about that?

A: It's a feature-length documentary that I'm working on with the National Film Board of Canada and also with the support of the Hot Docs Cross Current Fund. 

The film initially was a response to the opioid crisis on the Blood Reserve, but in the process of making this film I've begun to understand that addiction through the opioid crisis is far too narrow a lens.

This film has kind of evolved to looking at addiction as a whole within our community and exploring the ways that we address addiction through treatment. 

The film questions what harm reduction within an Indigenous context or an Indigenous community can look like and if it works. I also look at the common beliefs around what leads to addiction and I don't necessarily believe that it's just trauma, I think it has to do with structural inequality like poverty and unemployment and racism.

When you're looking at southern Alberta, racism is still very much alive and there is almost a nuanced form of segregation that exists, and if you look at the poverty and unemployment rates on reserves it's through the roof. I don't have any doubt in my mind that those factors deeply contribute to addiction. 

Then we do look at things like inter-generational trauma and the affects of residential schools, colonialism and ongoing colonialism. So it looks at a lot of things. 

Q: You seem to take on very important, relevant, but difficult topics with your filmmaking. Is it important for you to do that?

A: The same can be said for a number of other Indigenous filmmakers. I can't speak for everyone but as an Indigenous person, we have to be very attuned to what's going on politically and socially in this country and my work just generally reflects what's going on in my life as an Indigenous woman.  

Q:How do you think your community has helped you become the person that you are, and pursue your career?

A: I'm incredibly proud to be Niitsitapi, or Blackfoot, I'm incredibly proud to come from where I come from and I think my people are so incredibly resilient and so beautiful and I think our culture, our spirituality and our traditional ways of being with one another is really beautiful and I'm just so proud of that. 

Q:What do you hope young Blackfoot people who look up to you take away from your success as a filmmaker?

A: I don't really feel comfortable considering myself as a role model or anything like that. I think that I'm just one of many people in my community doing really important work, and that work is in a lot of ways not acknowledged or seen by communities outside of the Blood Reserve. But I'm so deeply inspired by the work people in our community are doing on a daily basis, which is in many ways thankless and altruistic and it comes from a commitment and a love for our people and our ways of being that's driven by hope for the future. 

I think that young Indigenous people, especially from my community, have a lot of people to look up to these days and I think we're in a really important time in terms of film and art and all of the incredible work that's being created by Indigenous artists.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Lucie most recently headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson