'Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy' Shows the Power of Bearing Witness Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

'Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy' Shows the Power of Bearing Witness Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
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Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers' Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is an expansive, wrenching and hopeful documentary. It not only connects the dots to provide us with knowledge that no conventional educational system is willing to give, but also teaches us by example how we might see, feel and love. Kímmapiiyipitssini is a grand, enveloping doc that redefines the meaningful work that film can accomplish. 

Tailfeathers is from the Blackfoot community in Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta, and it is to this community she takes us. The film follows medical professionals (including Tailfeathers' mother Dr. Esther Tailfeathers), first responders and various other community members as they work to keep those with substance use disorder safe during a drug-poisoning epidemic. Tailfeathers delicately depicts the difference between the two schools of thought within the community — those who are abstinence-minded and those, including Dr. Tailfeathers, who work in harm reduction. Tailfeathers shows how members of the Kainai First Nation learn and adapt techniques in harm reduction from those in practice in BC, and shows the importance of listening to the people who are actually using and have a drug dependency, ultimately showing how important communication and listening are to the work of rebuilding a community in face of an ineffective government.

That Tailfeathers leads by example in this documentary is meant literally. As people from the community who use and have a drug dependency speak to the camera to tell their tales, we catch glimpses of Tailfeathers listening — actively listening — asking questions, authentically engaging with the members of her community, giving hugs, asking to see pictures of their babies, and showing viewers how we ought to relate to other human beings. It's no secret that there is tremendous stigma and misunderstanding surrounding drug use and addiction, and this is something Tailfeathers discusses as she defines harm reduction in the film. By listening, by focusing on the people within the community — the faces and the names and their stories — Tailfeathers shows us the untenableness of preconceived notions and prejudices. Addiction is not a moral failure, Tailfeathers reminds us.    

Medical professional Roxi White Quills mentions at one point the importance of empathy — she says that, when you see a person hurting, if you can't fix their pain, then the least you can offer is empathy, a listening ear. This, for many people, is enough, because it means that you see them. To be remembered, to be seen and heard, Tailfeathers shows us, can often be what saves a person from oblivion. 

The powerful act of listening in this film is anchored in an understanding of the past. The stories Tailfeathers shepherds us through are contextualized within the thorny landscape of settler colonialism; she draws a direct line from residential schools to present-day suffering on Blackfoot land in relation to the substance-use epidemic. Furthermore, Tailfeathers shows that racism against Indigenous peoples isn't a thing of the past, but that it's alive, and its slimy tentacles writhe under the medical system, leading to many Indigenous people avoiding doctors when they need them the most. 

Many scenes in Kímmapiiyipitssini come with trigger warnings, but it's also important that we bear witness, and Tailfeathers shows us how. Though this documentary depicts much grief, loss, frustration and sadness, it also blooms with a boundless hope. What Tailfeathers shows us is a community mobilizing toward survival, their strength and love and caring, especially on the part of frontline workers such as the inimitable Dr. Tailfeathers. What Tailfeathers shows us is that no person who is alive has nothing to give to another person; we will always have empathy, we can always bear witness.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is available for virtual screenings through the Rendezvous with Madness Festival until November 7. It will be in select theatres across Canada in November.