Indigenous

Worlds collide on a Vancouver street corner in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Indigenous motherhood and the legacy of colonialism are the focus of a new film by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn.

Film explores bond formed between 2 Indigenous women through chance encounter

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is co-directed and co-written by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, left, who also plays Áila, and Kathleen Hepburn. (submitted by TIFF)

It's rush hour in Vancouver and pouring rain when two worlds collide in a new film offering a look into the complex realities of Indigenous women. 

With a soaking wet hoodie, bare feet and a pregnant belly, Rosie (Violet Nelson) is standing on a street corner after fleeing domestic abuse when she is approached by Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers). 

While both women are Indigenous, they couldn't be from more different backgrounds. 

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is co-directed and co-written by Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn.

Over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes as the film plays out in real-time, the two women forge a bond while attempting to navigate the complex issues surrounding domestic abuse, Indigenous motherhood and the lasting impacts of colonialism. 

'Shook me to the core' 

This scene is filmed at the same corner where Tailfeathers, who is a member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta, had a similar encounter with a young pregnant Indigenous woman. 

"That experience, it shook me to the core and was world-altering," she said.

"I felt like it was really important to honour her story and other women."

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers co-wrote the film after experiencing a similar encounter on the same street corner where the women in the film meet. (submitted by TIFF)

The film focuses on themes of Indigenous motherhood and reveals the struggle of class and race and how that can impact a woman's ability to choose her own path. 

Tailfeather said she believes she comes from a place of relative privilege because of her light skin, not growing up in foster care but with her own two parents, surrounded by her culture and language. This is reflected through the character Áila. 

Nelson's character, Rosie, on the other hand, has aged out of the child-welfare system and is struggling with how to adapt without supports and finds herself in a potentially deadly cycle of domestic abuse. 

Workshops and mentoring

Most of the filmmaking process was spent workshopping the script or rehearsing since the film rolls in one continuous sequence.

"I think we're trying to be very realistic in the way that we're portraying the situation," said Kathleen Hepburn.

"We wanted to show how difficult it can be to make that choice and everything that Rosie has to think about. She's thinking about the safety of her child and it might seem counterintuitive that she would think that staying is safer. But in some situations, it can be."

Recognizing that they have never gone through the experience of aging out of care, Tailfeathers and Hepburn workshopped the script with six young Indigenous women, who provided feedback. 

Violet Nelson plays Rosie, a young Indigenous woman who has aged out of foster care, is pregnant and trying to escape domestic abuse. (Submitted by TIFF)

"They helped us ... told us what we were completely getting wrong and things that we could fix," said Tailfeathers. 

They also did a youth mentorship program while filming, with 11 Indigenous youth working in key crew departments. 

The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and has since been acquired by Ava DuVernay's ARRAY Releasing for worldwide rights, excluding Canada.

ARRAY Releasing was founded in 2010 by Ava DuVernay as a film collective dedicated to amplifying films and images of people of colour and women directors. 

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.