With the novel American Dirt stirring questions of representation in the arts, now is the perfect time to consider a film with no such problems. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is co-written and co-directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, an Indigenous Canadian telling a story of two Indigenous Canadian women. (Her co-director and co-writer is fellow Canadian Kathleen Hepburn.) Impressively, this is only the second full-length directing effort for both of them.
In it, Tailfeathers plays Áila, a woman very much like herself, experiencing a life-changing event similar to one that Tailfeathers herself had. After a prologue introducing Áila and the other main character Rosie (Violet Nelson), the re-creation of this event unfolds in real time across a rainy Vancouver afternoon.
Áila is returning to her apartment after an impersonal doctor’s visit, when she happens upon Rosie standing barefoot on the sidewalk, with a man yelling threats from the other side of the street. Quickly sizing things up, Áila whisks Rosie out of the man’s sight and to her own apartment.
Instantly, a difference in privilege is transparently obvious between the two women. Áila is lighter-skinned and could easily “pass” for non-Indigenous. She’s more confident and articulate, and is comfortably middle class. Rosie’s facial features are clearly those of a First Nations woman, she lives in a government-subsidized apartment, and is 19 years old and pregnant.
After getting her into dry clothes, Áila resourcefully runs through options for safety with Rosie. Call the police? No, they look at you like you’re wasting their time. Go back to the Vancouver Island rez with her grandparents? No, the other residents will judge her for being young, unmarried, and pregnant. Take a taxi to a safe house? Maybe.
Reading this far into my review, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in topical movie of the week or social services infomercial territory. But The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is deeper than this in so many ways.
For one thing, the technical choices here exponentially augment the power of the storytelling. After the prologue, the film is shot as one continuous sequence, with afternoon sun slowly transitioning to evening twilight. To achieve this, Tailfeathers, Hepburn, and their team filmed across five days, always closely following one or both of the characters. For example, if Rosie goes into the bathroom in Áila’s apartment, a second cameraperson was ready in that room to keep shooting.
This continuity allows us to gradually learn more about both characters, at the same time that Áila and Rosie are discovering more about their opposites. We see Rosie’s pregnant belly and the ugly bruises around her neck as Áila notices them. We hear about the discord between Áila and her boyfriend over whether to have children as Rosie listens.
We’re also occasionally privy to actions that the other character does not observe. Áila pauses to pull herself together during a short interlude in her bedroom; Rosie deftly swipes some of Áila’s possessions when alone.
And this brings me to the three-dimensionality of these characters. Rosie is no saint, as her thieving shows. Áila is trying to help, but sometimes comes across as patronizing or condescending. In a telling bit of dialogue, Áila protests that “I never said I was better than you,” to which Rosie counters, “You didn’t have to.”
Despite such tensions, I appreciate the intentional downplaying of any melodramatic potential. Most of the dialogue occurs in soft conversational tones, while Tailfeathers and Hepburn smartly avoid a pat Hollywood ending. Music external to the film’s action is restricted to a single scene and the credit roll.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open handles its subject matter with subtlety and integrity. It makes clear that there are no glib answers to situations of domestic violence, with each “solution” evoking unique stresses and flaws. Questions of bodily autonomy for women (Áila’s use of contraception contra her boyfriend’s wishes, Rosie’s physical safety and choice to keep her pregnancy) are contemplated rather than decisively settled.
The film’s title is taken from an essay by Cree author Billy-Ray Belcourt. His essay is a fascinating mélange of poetic language, artistic analysis, and academic theory, considering the traumatic historical weight that Indigenous people inevitably carry in their body. The film doesn’t belabor the connection between subjugation, dislocation, cultural dissolution, and the prevalence of social pathologies like domestic violence, but the link is certainly there for those with eyes to see.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )