Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers – “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy”

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Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is a writer, director, producer and actor. She’s a member of the Kainai First Nation — Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy — as well as Sámi from Norway. Her documentary “Bihttoš” was selected by the Toronto International Film Festival as one of Canada’s Top Ten Shorts and also won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short at the Seattle International Film Festival. Tailfeathers acted in, co-wrote, and co-directed with Kathleen Hepburn the narrative feature “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” which received the Toronto Film Critics Association and Vancouver Film Critics Circle awards for Best Canadian Film and earned Tailfeathers and Hepburn Canadian Screen Awards for Best Direction and Best Original Screenplay.

“Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

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W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

EMT: “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy” is a portrait of my Blackfoot community’s response to the opioid — or drug-poisoning — crisis, shot over a four-year period. The film features frontline workers, individuals living with active substance-use disorder, and individuals in recovery. I am immensely proud of Kainai and everyone who is contributing to this monumental effort to save lives.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EMT: As a filmmaker and a community member, I felt an urgency and a responsibility to document these radical changes and also honor the lives of those lost to this crisis. Kímmapiiyipitssini — which means giving kindness to each other — is a Blackfoot teaching that reminds us that practicing empathy and compassion is how we survive as a people.

It is how our ancestors survived genocide, and it is how we, as a community, will survive this crisis. Kímmapiiyipitssini is our harm reduction.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

EMT: My community, and many other Indigenous communities, are often framed through the monolithic and reductive lens of tragedy and trauma. I want to present non-Indigenous audiences with a portrait of a strong and beautiful community that challenges those problematic representations. I also want to provide other Indigenous communities, who are facing similar issues, with a useful tool for dialogue.

Like everyone from the community, we lost a family member to this crisis. I want to honor the lives of those lost to drug poisoning. They were human beings with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. They had people who loved them, and their deaths were preventable.

I want audiences to understand that people living with substance-use disorder deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. Their lived experience is a valuable resource in terms of finding solutions, and they absolutely must be centered in this conversation.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

EMT: There are approximately 14,000 members of my nation and everyone has a story to tell. It was incredibly challenging to narrow the scope of voices featured in the film down to about 50. Hundreds of people from my community participated in the making of this film in some capacity, many of whom appeared in front of the camera.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EMT: The film is a co-production with between my company, Seen Through Woman Productions, and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). We received support from the NFB; both development and post-production funding through the Hot Docs CrossCurrents Canada Doc Fund; and production and post-production funding through Telefilm Canada’s Indigenous Stream.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

EMT: I started out as an actor 15 years ago and quickly realized that the mainstream film industry was dominated by white voices with little to no knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and our stories. I went back to university and in one of my Indigenous Studies courses, I was given the chance to submit a media project rather than a paper. I made a terrible documentary shot on a camcorder and edited in iMovie — and it changed the course of my life. The experience of having narrative agency is what led me to believe that I could make my own films.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

EMT: Best advice: My parents and grandparents are all very hardworking, passionate, and kind people. All of them taught me that hard work and kindness go a long way.

Worst advice: There’s only one way to make a film or tell a story.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

EMT: Work hard. Be kind. Follow your intuition. Challenge conventions.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

EMT: There are too many to name! Here are some of my favorites: “nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up” by Tasha Hubbard; “Waru” by Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace-Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley, and Katie Wolfe; “Vai” by Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana, Miria George, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Nicole Whippy, and Sharon Whippy; “Sami Blood” by Amanda Kernell; “Night Raiders” by Danis Goulet — towards which I’m biased; “Angry Inuk” by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

I love literally anything by Alanis Obomsawin, but “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” is essential viewing. Other favorites include “How a People Live,” “Lichen,” “Savage,” and “Suckerfish” by Lisa Jackson; “Fast Horse” and “Lake” by Alexandra Lazarowich; “Njuokčamat” and “This Is Fiction-19” by Marja and Inger Bål Nango; “Three Thousand” by Asinnajaq; “Sparrooabbán” by Suvi West; “êmîcêtôcêt: Many Bloodlines” by Theola Ross; “Mud (Hashtl’ishnii)” by Shaandiin Tome; “Time” by Garrett Bradley; “Atlantics” by Mati Diop; and “Fish Tank” by Andrea Arnold.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

EMT: It really depends on the day. I miss my family and I miss home. I’m just doing my best to get through, and trying my hardest to accept that there’s more to life and my identity than my work. My creative output cannot and should not be a quantifiable measure of my worth.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

EMT: I’m tired of being asked that question. “Inclusion” centers dominant voices. Those dominant voices need to recognize that white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and generational wealth are very real systemic barriers for the rest of us. Dominant voices need to step aside and give us the space, the resources, and the respect we deserve to tell our own stories.

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