Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers Amplifies the Lived Experience of a Community in Crisis

"I was just constantly moved by people's willingness and desire to share their stories," she says of her new documentary about the opioid epidemic
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers Amplifies the Lived Experience of a Community in Crisis
Photo: Sweetmoon Photography
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers expresses her need to tell the story cradled within her documentary Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy — about the opioid overdose epidemic in her southern Alberta community of Kainai First Nation — by describing two experiences that happened while filming. The first occurred when she was heading to the location in Stand Off, AB, for an emergency community meeting set up to deal with a new wave of overdoses.

"I was driving along the highway, and it was a cold November day," Tailfeathers tells Exclaim! over the phone from Montreal. She was staying at her mother's home, which is 20 minutes away from the location of the meeting in Stand Off. "I saw a guy hitchhiking on the side of the road, which is totally normal — people hitchhike all the time back home, because there's limited transportation and a lot of people don't have cars. Anyway, I saw a guy hitchhiking and pulled over and realized he was in a hospital gown and was wearing just the paper hospital slippers. He had no shoes. It was really cold, so I pulled over and picked him up."

The man, she discovered, had been released from a nearby hospital with a head injury. She remembers, "He had a concussion and it was very evident after he got in the car that he was still experiencing a concussion, and it just blew my mind that they would let someone go with a head injury without a jacket or shoes and just expect them to hitchhike home."

The second story is no less stark.

"A young woman who I encountered at the shelter — she had been assaulted and had been hit over the head and it was clear that she had a head injury," Tailfeathers recalls. She then took the young woman to the emergency room.

Tailfeathers adds, "[We met] a white nurse. The first thing [the nurse] said to [the young woman] was, 'How much have you had to drink?' She didn't even ask what happened, [or] 'What are your symptoms?' Her first question was, 'How much have you had to drink?' And the judgment in her voice was just so clear. And in that moment, I witnessed this young woman just shrink and feel less than human."

These two events don't make it into the film, but they do further blacken the ink underscoring the documentary's already powerful and fairly straightforward argument. Kímmapiiyipitssini doesn't need to do much to show Canada's inaction when it comes to Indigenous lives, despite the country's vacuous and impotent statements about reconciliation. The film need merely gesture toward the issue, which Tailfeathers does. But Kímmapiiyipitssini is also much more than this gesturing; it shows us the reaction to a useless government's inaction by following the lived experiences of the members of her community as they work to support each other.

Tailfeathers gives us an at once condemning and galvanizing documentary that not only bears witness to a community mobilizing to protect itself against a disaster that the government seems incapable of providing help with, but also teaches viewers how to bear witness. Tailfeathers works throughout the film, and during our interview, to show what it means to listen to the lived experiences of others and to honour people's voices, because even if you have nothing left to give, the ability to listen can be the wellspring of empathy, which is a powerful thing.

The documentary begins with a score like hearing blood rushing behind your ears and roaming landscape shots of Kainai First Nation, with bison calves grazing under sunlight like a delicate veil of gold. "Are you dreaming?" the voice of Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, family physician and Tailfeathers' mother, asks a swaddled baby in her arms. The audience sees images of bison calves playing with their mothers. It's a scene containing all the warmth of a hug, and welcomes viewers into the film with care and tenderness — before showing us the grim reality faced by many members of the community.

"It was horrible to witness," Tailfeathers says of the treatment of the young woman she took to the health centre. "And I know that that's something that Indigenous people, especially vulnerable people and people who live with substance use disorder, experience — these deeply dehumanizing moments within the healthcare system."

These moments, unfortunate and harrowing as they are, were necessary to witness, and functioned to solidify Tailfeathers' resolve and urgency in telling the story of her community. "The healthcare system as a whole can be really harmful to Indigenous people because there are so many healthcare practitioners that carry these racist attitudes," Tailfeathers says.

"So often in the Prairies, especially in southern Alberta, there's just so much racism directed toward Indigenous people and a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about what actually goes on in our communities," she says. "And I felt like it was so important to document [my community's] work as a means to resist these racist narratives."

The groundwork for Kímmapiiyipitssini was first laid by Tailfeathers in 2015, when Kainai First Nation was about a year into the opioid crisis. Tailfeathers had made a short documentary at the time on this topic. "I started to think that maybe I could explore the story in a deeper, more long-form way," she says. In early 2016, she began researching and actively working on the feature-length film.

Over the years since then, Tailfeathers has increasingly become a key figure in Canadian independent cinema. She co-directed and co-starred in the gripping 2019 drama The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, and she had acting roles in the zombie horror flick Blood Quantum (2019) and the dystopian sci-fi film Night Raiders (2021). The latter release broke records with the widest theatrical opening of any film by an Indigenous Canadian director. All the while, she was gradually working on Kímmapiiyipitssini while the overdose crisis raged on.

In watching Kímmapiiyipitssini, it's difficult to overlook two remarkable images. The first is the image of the eagerness in the people within Tailfeathers' community who are living with substance use disorder to share their experiences. The second is the image of Tailfeathers listening to their stories.

"Most people really wanted to share their stories," she says. "They wanted people to hear about their lived experiences, and that was really beautiful to witness, because it takes a great deal of courage to share personal stories like that. Especially because there's so much stigma and shame around drug and alcohol use. I was just constantly moved by people's willingness and desire to share their stories."

That being said, it would have been difficult for an outsider to gain the access that Tailfeathers has in Kímmapiiyipitssini. Many of the closed meetings at rehabilitation and treatment centres would have been difficult for someone outside of the community to access.

"I'm from the community and my family is very involved in the community," Tailfeathers says. "I did a great deal of trust-building before ever bringing cameras into any of those situations. And so I think people understood the intention behind the film and I had that sort of privilege and trust."

In technical terms, this meant working with a smaller crew and using a small DSLR when interviewing people. "One thing we considered very early on was to use a small camera and to minimize the amount of gear, because when filming anything, gear can be really intimidating to people who don't spend any time around film gear," she says.

"I think it ends up leaving us with a sense of intimacy because we worked with very few lenses as well," she adds. "My DP [director of photography] Patrick McLaughlin and I talked about using a lens that had a shallow depth of focus in moments where we wanted to be able to maintain anonymity in situations where maybe there are people in the background who we didn't want to film, or people whose privacy we wanted to respect. We were focusing on the participant in front of the lens. There were a lot of conversations around maintaining intimacy and then also privacy and also making people feel comfortable."

This active engendering of a safe, warm and attentive space is where Tailfeathers' teachings come in. Shots of her listening to her interviewees as they share their experiences don't punctuate the film for stylistic reasons; rather, they seem to serve to teach us how we ought to behave, how we ought to be empathetic, how we might create the encompassing and validating space similar to the swaddling work Dr. Tailfeathers talks about in the beginning of the documentary. As Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers learns throughout the documentary, she teaches us, so that we too might learn.

Working on Kímmapiiyipitssini also required a lot of listening to people working on the frontlines to combat the epidemic.

"I learned very early on that I knew very little about harm reduction," Tailfeathers says. "I kind of had the basic novice understanding that a lot of the general public has about harm reduction, and so it involved a deep dive into just learning about what harm reduction actually is and what it looks like on the ground. I spent a lot of time working or learning from people on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside who provide harm reduction services. And then also from the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, which is a branch of VANDU [Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users Association]."

She continues, "I spent time just learning from them and listening and very quickly understood that so often when it comes to talking about solutions, especially to this opioid overdose or drug-poisoning epidemic, drug users are left out of the conversation. People who are living with substance use disorder are left out of the conversation, when they are the ones who have the knowledge of lived experience, and the understanding of what the barriers are in their lives, [and] what their needs are in terms of finding solutions."

Accordingly, in her research and approach to making the film, Tailfeathers is guided by her interviewees' stories. "[I tried to] centre the voices of people who actually live with substance use disorder and people who understand the lived reality of addiction," she says.

In another remarkable scene, Tailfeathers and her mother show videos of safe-injection sites and needle exchange and alcohol exchange programs they researched in Vancouver to community members with substance use disorders, asking them if they would like the programs to be implemented in Stand Off. It's a powerful scene because of the chorus of voices in response, each explaining why the program will be beneficial to them.

In the present day, Bringing the Spirit Home detox centre — whose creation we follow with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Dr. Tailfeathers in the documentary — has now expanded with a new wing. Tailfeathers says that the centre now offers an after-care program, which allows participants to come back and live at the centre after their detox treatment. "It's a part of this concept of thinking of housing as harm reduction, and thinking about the continuum of care and how there's so many steps to recovery and people need support along the way," Tailfeathers says. The detox centre allows for families to remain together because it allows parents to remain in their children's lives, to keep them out of foster care.

Kímmapiiyipitssini shows a wonderful communal effort to learn and grow, an initiative to fix what is broken, and a commitment to show empathy and bear witness when it's difficult to fix. And no one but Tailfeathers could have created such a stunning portrait of genuine connections, grief and ultimately hope; no one but her could have effectively depicted Kainai First Nation.

"It's such a beautiful place," Tailfeathers says of Kainai First Nation, its rolling plains, clear rumbling creeks, and sunlight so yellow you can wear it. "I wanted people to really understand that this is our homeland, this is the place that birthed our people, and it's such a beautiful place. And I think the beauty of the place is also reflected in our people and our culture."