The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open stars co-director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Áila, and Violet Nelson as Rosie: two Indigenous Vancouver women who come into contact after Rosie has just been violently assaulted by her partner. The women share indigeneity, and the lived experience of oppression from colonialism, but they are also vastly different ― Áila, like Tailfeathers, is half Sami and half Blackfoot, and comes from a middle-class background. Rosie is a working class Kwakwakaʼwakw woman who already has a long history of social workers and external forces encouraging her to get help. When she meets Áila, there is a point of divergence ― an intersection through which an often devastating dialogue is born between the two women. However, Tailfeathers and co-director Kathleen Hepburn take care in detailing the ways in which Áila’s compassion is, while heartfelt and valuable, naïve to the reality of Rosie’s life.
The film could be described as a series of very long takes, interrupted only when required by the narrative. But that distinction would feel too purely stylistic: it’s more valuable to think in terms of what Tailfeathers has described as “real-time.” Speaking to the incident that inspired the film in an interview with The Independent Magazine, Tailfeathers describes the need to convey: “[the] …in between, the moments of silence and struggling to find the right words or the right thing to do. So, the decision to tell the story in real time came quite naturally. It was what the story asked of us.” This creative choice colours the film with a paradoxically tense and hypnotic atmosphere. We are so deeply embedded in Áila and Rosie’s conversations as audience members, that we are no longer simply invested in the characters ― we’re in the room with them.
Norm Li’s masterful camerawork steers our perspective throughout the film via lengthy shots that either pull hard into close-ups as emotions peak, or drift, listing left and right as the conversation becomes too uncomfortable or profound. We are pressed against the faces of Rosie and Áila for most of the film’s two-hour runtime, but here, extreme familiarity invites understanding, not aversion.
After an extended back-and-forth about whether Rosie should stay in a safehouse, she finally commits, and flags down a cab. In this moment, first Áila climbs in, then the camera follows her. The camera tilts down to the middle seat and we collapse into it, feeling hopeful, if not nervous. Rosie follows us in and shuts the door. For the next twenty to thirty minutes of the film, we sit between the two protagonists, slowly turning our ‘heads’ to hear their commentary. Rosie decides to tell a long story to the cab driver about Áila, pretending that Áila is her sister who has finally agreed to go to rehab (in the film’s sole moment of comic relief).
Sequences like this are extraordinary ― they tap into deep intimacy and physicality, and frame our viewing experience. The Body Remembers succeeds in its efforts to demonstrate the unique strain and pleasure of the bond between Rosie and Áila, because it uses the language of film to draw the audience into their relationship. As a secondary effect, the intimacy the film evokes in us also mirrors the distance between the two protagonists. We watch on and feel everything. We understand. But like Áila discovering her inability to ‘rescue’ Rosie, we have to accept that we cannot truly ever embody the experiences of these women ― to know them is not to know what is right for them.
The film is painterly in its careful use of colour, and beautifully composed frames. Blue and cobalt tones dominate the colour palette with much of the film taking place during dusk and rainfall. Warm yellows and reds from streetlights, shopfronts and living rooms gently relieve the blue. Music is infrequent in The Body Remembers ― only two songs are credited ― but this greatly amplifies their effect when they are pointedly deployed at just the right moments. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Little Green’ connects Áila and Rosie, with both women coincidentally having a significant relationship to the song through their families. Rosie decides to play the song to her pregnant stomach, and we hear Mitchell’s impassioned vocal work resonate for a few moments. The song floods the film, all but drowning out all other sounds.
These dreamy, profound instances of calm exemplify the entire feature, which is expertly directed, performed, and shot ― a radical and devastating narrative delivered with dual precision and care. The Body Remembers conveys the struggle of many Indigenous women’s lives, resolving to depict the emotional strength, courage, and solidarity between Rosie and Áila ― even if Áila’s efforts and interventions may not make their imagined impact upon Rosie, the film leaves an indelible mark on us, purely through our witness to these two characters.
The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open played as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.