The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is pure hell to sit through. It’s worth the pain, though, since this outstanding drama by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn is one of the year’s best Canadian films. (The movie is Tailfeathers’ feature directorial debut and Hepburn’s sophomore turn after Never Steady, Never Still.) Body gives a raw and real portrait of the everyday violence faced by Indigenous women in Canada. In light of this year’s controversial finding in the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which found Canada responsible for systemic genocide, the film provides an intimate glimpse into the experience of a woman who could become another statistic. It’s an ambitious and gutsy film that’s bound to knock the wind out of anyone who sees it.
Tailfeathers, performing double duty as co-director/writer and actor, stars in this heroically unconventional saga of sisterhood. Playing Aila, Tailfeathers is the eyes through which the audience embarks on a gruelling journey. Aila encounters a young woman named Rosie (Violet Nelson), shivering in despair on a busy Vancouver street. Shoeless, disoriented, sopping wet from rain, and riddled with bruises, Rosie needs help. Whereas most people would just pass Rosie by, Alia recognizes her distress. The screams of Rosie’s boyfriend from far across the road, meanwhile, tell Alia that Rosie isn’t safe. Alia takes Rosie under her wing and finds her safety and shelter, all the while conveying that this isn’t her first encounter with such violence.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open unfolds with heart-pounding urgency. The dizzying hour of Alia and Rosie’s day unfolds in real-time. Hepburn and Tailfeathers realize the drama in long takes shot with anxiety-inducing handheld cinematography. Preceded by two conventionally edited preambles in which the film introduces the two women, the real-time centrepiece pulses with urgency. Shot on 16mm film by Norm Li, Body has layers of grit and grain to make its intensity extra sobering. The editing by Christian Siebenherz is cut so seamlessly to evoke a continuous take that one barely has room to breathe. The realism is a sobering reminder that this story, inspired by Tailfeathers’ own encounter with a woman in need, is ripped from everyday life.
Even the absence of male figures in the film speaks volumes about the violence these women face. Body affords little to no screen presence to men as Hepburn and Tailfeathers emphasize female agency. A few male characters appear briefly, and they are largely off-screen playing stock types of irritable cab drivers, insensitive doctors, and violent aggressors. Rosie even views Alia’s boyfriend with suspicion until she reassures her that he’s Indigenous and not white. The boyfriend, meanwhile, doesn’t even register that Alia’s brought home a stranger in distress and just goes out to walk the dog. On one level, the choice to reduce men to one-note negative stereotypes is the film’s one frustrating misstep. (Even a token of balance might have furthered its portrait of allies.) But in doing that, the film reflects the unfortunate reality that men too often leave women to deal with violence on their own.
Equally significant is the mere presence of the two women. Nelson, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and Tailfeathers, a mix of ancestry from the Blackfoot tribe and the Sámi of Scandinavia, carry different shades of life experience. As Alia assumes the role of watchful protector, she recognizes how the world doesn’t turn its eye to the causes of women who look like Rosie and herself. Rosie, meanwhile, keeps Alia at a distance, calling her “white.” She resents the perceived element of privilege that might allow her to pass. But Alia recognizes the violence all too well.
The two leads give exceptional performances that work hand in hand. Tailfeathers, having a strong year after playing the heroic warrior in Jeff Barnaby’s zombie flick Blood Quantum, gives a performance of stoic strength. She is a compassionate and empathetic presence. Nelson, meanwhile, is simply astonishing in her dramatic debut. Much of the film tasks the newcomer with carrying its dramatic weight on her shoulders. This fine debut is doubly impressive given the intricately choreographed long takes in which Nelson conveys a world of emotions.
The relationship between the actors is significant. Tailfeathers’ role as Nelson’s co-star and co-director lends itself to the dynamic between the characters. This is a film about acting and reacting, as Alia conveys by responding to Rosie’s sensitivity and compassionately. There is something achingly beautiful to the empathetic screen chemistry of these two strong women. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a challenge, but it’s absolutely necessary viewing.