Filmmaker and actor Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers had an unusual and profoundly moving experience on the street in Vancouver, an experience that opened her eyes to her own naivete and sense of power. She created a continuously shot feature based on the experience called ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.’ Tailfeathers teamed up with award director Kathleen Hepburn and together they wrote and directed an intense drama that lingers long after it ends. Talented newcomer Violet Nelson plays lost young and abused pregnant woman whose path crosses with a businesswoman who tries to help her. It’s a stunning two hander in theatres now. I spoke to Tailfeathers about this incredibly emotional and technical achievement.
The film is highly personal and intimate. It’s visceral as though the audience is there watching what takes place and is anxiously unable to help.
The film is inspired by an experience I had in the same neighbourhood and just like in the film, I encountered a young indigenous and pregnant woman barefoot on a cold, rainy, winter day. I ended up taking her home, thinking I had the skills and knowledge to help, her, very quickly, and I was naïve, I came to the understanding that support services are underfunded and resourced. It was a very challenging experience. I learned so much from this woman but I never saw her again. She lives a couple of blocks away I go by and tried to see her but I never did.
I wanted to honour her story and our experience. So, I decided I wanted to make a feature-length film simply about that encounter between two strangers in this desperate situation coming from a very different background. Most of my experience in filmmaking was documentary and fiction as an actor but knowing I wanted to create a film that unfolded in real-time and that I would benefit from collaborating with women. I love working with women, they can achieve anything they set their minds to Kathleen Hepburn is a good friend whom I deeply admired, never say never. It’s stunning still to me, it blew me away working with her. She has sensitivity and emotional intelligence and an ability to tell a nuanced story. Everything I would need in a collaborator. That’s how it started.
This is a stunning piece partly because of its simplicity. How did you ensure that focus?
We wanted it to be pure, to honour that original experience and to keep the story simple. It required a lot of thought and deep conversation. We would not follow the pressure to heighten the drama, we wanted to reflect reality and it was tense. When there are no people to help, women are facing that experience all over the world every day. A story specific to an indigenous woman is also a very universal story.
[youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0iwlIO4fmA” width=”500″ height=”300″]
As one of two actors, you play a businesswoman and yet you feel helpless when you can’t fix things. Interesting dilemma.
There were a lot of things we considered and one was that we didn’t want Rosie to be victim, we wanted her to have agency and power and it not to be the saviour narrative and solve the problem. I didn’t solve that problem on that day. We rehearsed for four weeks; we were inspired by the process. Violet Nelson had never acted, she’s amazing, we found her through an open casting call after seen so many women. We wanted to support her and bring the most organic experience out of her. Film is generally shot out of chronological but we didn’t want to put Violet in this challenging situation and get her into the headspace.
We decided to rehearse for four weeks, build trust and make sure it was all ringing true to us as directors, and we were also inspired by the idea of theatre in the sense you can go through the performance beginning to end with the kinetic energy that builds with an audience. There’s a greater potential for failure, it heightens the stakes and so we decided to bring that idea to the film and shoot it in one take. We had to build in stitch points because film runs out after eleven minutes. Our cinematographer and crew are very talented, and they were able to build in 12 stitch points. There was continuous action, specific spots choreographed so cameras had to be swapped and we ran the whole thing once a day for five days. It was a wild experience. We maintained the idea that the story is what mattered most, not the technical achievement; it was the process that supported the story and that was our idea. I think the fact we’re women really made this wild technical process a lot more manageable. There was never a moment we didn’t set out mind to it.
Violet Nelson’s phenomenal, that amazing face can’t hide a thing!
The thing about Violet is that she has this radiant beautiful spirit that the camera loves and she tends to actually make unconventional choices in her acting which is really interesting to watch. We didn’t go with professional actors because they don’t make unconventional choices. We also wanted to work with someone who could connect with the material on a personal level. Violet’s mother was in an abusive relationship when she was growing up and she was in foster care for a short while. So she was able to bring something to Rosie. And we did our best to take care of her, we didn’t want to harm her in the process. She’s an old soul. She’s doing well now she has an agent and multiple acting gigs and she’s a member of the actors’ union.
Critics Choice Association/AWFJ/TFCA/FIPRESCI