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Filmstripped

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

author
Susanna Barlow
Sarah Genge
illustration
Alejandra Sanmaniego

I have spent many days on a cloudy Vancouver film set; dragging heavy cases down the back alleys, anxiously watching loaded trucks and crew busily clearing the remnants from those who spent the night there. As I scurry up a ladder to adjust a light that burns my fingertips, with the gaffer’s screams ringing in my ears “now, we need it NOW!” I question why I am contributing to this industry. It is a militarized system that erases spaces in order to fictionalize them.

Directors Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn offer an entirely different model of filmmaking with their 2019 film The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Inspired by an experience Tailfeathers had, the film walks with two young Indigenous women from very different backgrounds as they deal with the ramifications of domestic violence.

It is a loving portrait on and of the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. The film looks and feels like East Vancouver, which is something the film industry rarely lets happen. A roaring truck soars past Rosie (Violet Nelson) as she walks down Clark Drive; the rain clings to her hair, plastering it to her cheek; CBC radio blares in the taxi cab, announcing the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. We sit in the cab with Rosie and Alia, we open the door and walk the streets, we enter buildings and we exit buildings. There is no pointing, there is no judgement — we are just there with them. 

The core of the film is about love, motherhood and sovereignty of the body. Being able to have the right to choose to have a child and have the right to raise that child. It’s been this fundamental rupture of Indigenous community: this removal of our children, this fracture of our families and our communities, which has done so much damage.”
-Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers 

These deeply present colonial wounds are exactly what Indigenous poet and scholar, Billy Ray Belcourt, is referring to in his proposition from which the title was taken: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. We see it in Aila’s guardedness and mistrust of the white male doctor inserting her IUD, and even more clearly in Rosie’s resistance to entering the system of public aid in fleeing her abuser. Rosie states, “No one is going to take my baby away from me.” Their bodies inherit the ongoing history of colonizers deciding what happens to them and their children.

The film resists a didactic moral message without being neutral, though — it’s nuanced. They’re able to show how important it is for us to look out for one another while still acknowledging the power dynamics of giving and receiving help. Rosie endures domestic violence and decides to return home, but it seems that the film asks us to respect her decision. Domestic violence is terrible, and we should support women living in those circumstances but sometimes that means supporting them in their decision to stay. The power to decide what happens to her and her body is a fundamental human right and we can’t take that away from her.

Care and specificity are at the core of this film and that further extends into its production. In preparation for The Body Remembers set, the directors and producers  had a lawyer come in and give a seminar on colonialism in Canada for the entire cast and crew. For example, they discussed why certain culturally appropriated words are harmful and that they wouldn’t be using them on set. That’s what making a safe space means: It’s a verb. It requires action. It takes time, education, unlearning, learning. It requires taking a stance, defining what a safe space means for that particular cast and crew dealing with that particular topic and then taking the steps to take everyone there with you. They are actively building new worlds to exist in, make work in and teach new filmmakers in. How we make films matters. What good is a film that perpetuates a cycle it is critiquing? 

Furthermore, Hepburn and Tailfeathers set a goal of having at least one Indigenous person in each key department. After not being able to fill those positions, they started a mentorship program wherein they brought Indigenous youth from the community to train in each department. It’s an upstream solution to the problem of unequal representation. They also workshopped the script with Indigenous women who had experience with domestic violence and public aid systems in order to show not just any trauma or victim, rather, a lived-in reality that so many indiginous face. They are brave mothers that deserve to be honoured on screen.  

Hepburn and Tailfeathers have developed a situated way of making films filled with care: away from extracting and exploiting, towards collaborating with and strengthening the communities represented.

Dear Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, will you write a manifesto? Also, thank you.

 

X

 

 1. See Radheyan Simonpillai, “TIFF 2019: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers Takes on the Foster Care System,” web, NOW, August 29th, 2019. https://nowtoronto.com/movies/features/tiff-2019-body-remembers-when-the-world/

 2. See Billy-Ray Belcourt, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” blog, February 8th, 2017. https://artseverywhere.ca/2017/02/08/body-remembers-world-broke-open/ 

 3. See Norm Li, CSC, Interviewed by Carolyn Wong, CSC Podcast, January 20th, 2019. http://www1.csc.ca/en/knowledge/podcasts/201901Li/ 

 4. Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Q&A presentation at the VIFF Premiere screening of “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, September 28th, 2019.

Columns

Art Review: Choreography for Carrot

author
Clara Dubber
photography
Shizen Jambor
illustration
Bre McDaniel

“Choreography for Carrot” by Shizen Jambor opened at Ground Floor Art Centre, 735 Gore Avenue, Vancouver, on November 15, 2019.

 

Everyone wants to believe they’re self-aware; that they are conscious of the concessions they’ve made to play whatever games they have committed to. Choreography for Carrot, a video installation piece by Shizen Jambor, forces artists to recognize their own complacency within myths and norms of the art world. The exhibition was short-lived but immersive. It was made up of two videos centered around a fictional artist (played by Jess Waters) and ran from November 15 to 20 at Ground Floor Art Center.

One video depicts an interview with the fictional artist speaking about their art practice. The other video, which Jambor attributes to the fictional artist, shows an art piece Jambor and Waters actually executed. It was only viewable through a peephole, and in it Waters is seated on a mounted bench wearing long blonde wigs on their head and waist. They hold a pole tipped with an inflated glove, and interact with a suspended carrot in their studio, following the instructions in the show’s literature:

Stretch

Inch forward, inch forward, inch forward

Gather (collect self)

Drive hand forward

glide towards goal, feeding inches at a time

full extension

reach for it

r e e e a a a a a a c  h h h h for it

swipe, swat, swat

strain, put everything into it

relax and reset 

 

One of the most effective and endearing parts of Choreography for Carrot is the unobvious satire. Jambor knows how to be exaggerative, their recent show, High Performance Object at Charles Clark Gallery, was explicit and intentional in its exaggeration and crudeness. It was self-definedly campy. However, with Carrot there is no winking at the camera — Waters’ earnest delivery of “We live in a society,” is with sincere conviction, does not waver. It is past deadpan; it makes us sit in reality-as-ridiculousness until we realize how ridiculous it is. 

In Carrot, Jambor explored the “contextualization of art on display.” Carrot’s structure was intentionally layered and implicit, contorting standard routes of interacting with pieces. The reality of the humor, the facility of the show itself, the intentionally mimicking-to-mock, forced the audience to eschew certain standards of contextualization yet made the show more dependent on others. Without the show’s literature, without being told that it is satire, you would not know. You might think the work is bad, but not intentionally. This satire is explicit in the literature accompanying the show, but the pieces themselves don’t have embedded points of entry.  

photos courtesy of Shizen Jambor

 

The opening was simultaneous with the Eastside Culture Crawl, and the Crawler audience often takes work at face value. This transient demographic, en route to participating Crawl events, magnified those elements of inaccessible humour in Carrot The layers of reality in Jambor’s work successfully created a whole and believable world, so whole that the messages became almost over-coded. In challenging art contextualization conventions, the show also demonstrated how standardizing art-interaction allows for concise communication to a broader audience. 

Still, Choreography for Carrot was not necessarily made for a broader audience. What makes it relatively inaccessible to those outside the art world made its communication to those within it more effective. Ground Floor is run by Emily Carr students and alumni, and acts as a community cornerstone for young, emerging artists who were hoping for an obvious or heightened silliness — Carrot’s satirical sincerity was not comforting. At the opening reception the interview’s audio was played off the monitor speakers and the audience watched it together, reacted together, and where Waters did not wink at the camera we winked to each other. The hyper-closeness to reality was proximal to the ways in which audience members interact with, or perpetuate myths around art production. There was a comradery in these emerging artists, collectively recognizing the goofiness of these behaviors. That comradery was comforting where the pieces were not.

Carrot’s interrogation of the conceptions of art production indicates their contradictions. Such as when Jambor and Waters’ unnamed artist claims, “if making art is difficult for someone then maybe it’s not for them,” despite the fact their own art practice focuses on struggle and striving.

The “peeped performance” is the kind of art culminated by these art-production myths. It is filmed in a large white room, the fictional artist is intent, they “put everything into it”. It alludes to the Lady Godiva legend, but is too dependent on the associations it expects its audience to already have made and does not say much itself.  

Jambor seriously and steadily holds a mirror up to the art world and tells it that it is silly —  providing itself as a negative for how artists can approach their practice.