Hot Docs 2021: Tanya Talaga and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers find parallels in personal films

The filmmakers discuss the importance of narrative sovereignty in Spirit To Soar and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy

Sweetmoon Photography (L) & Nadya Kwandibens (R)

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (L) and Tanya Talaga (R) share stories of their communities.

Spirit To Soar (Tanya Talaga, Michelle Derosier), 46 minutes; Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), 125 minutes. Both films available from Thursday (April 29) at 10 am to May 9.

In the Hot Docs films Spirit To Soar and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy, filmmakers Tanya Talaga and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers take us back to their Indigenous communities and honour the people who provide hope and healing in the face of systemic neglect and trauma.

Talaga’s film, which she co-directed with Michelle Derosier, is a follow-up to her 2017 non-fiction book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, And Hard Truths In A Northern City. The former Toronto Star reporter returns to Thunder Bay and revisits the stories and the community impact of the First Nation high school students who were found dead between 2000 and 2011. All had been removed from their homes in remote communities to attend high school in Thunder Bay. And their deaths were met with indifference from the police and broader settler community.

In Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy, Tailfeathers returns to Kainai in Alberta to document how her community is fighting the opioid crisis that has claimed hundreds of lives on their reserve. The filmmaker behind The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open visits safe consumption sites, community paramedics and her own mother, Esther Tailfeathers, creating an incredibly intimate portrait of the people living with addiction and the community supporting them.

Talaga and Tailfeathers got together with NOW on a Zoom call to share their mutual admiration and discuss how their films are connected thematically and emotionally; how generations of Indigenous storytellers in news media and film have moved the needle in terms of how stories are told; and how they still fight to maintain narrative sovereignty when making films in a settler state.

Tanya Talaga: I want to say that it is a huge honour meeting you, Elle-Máijá. Your work is unbelievable. I loved seeing your mom in your film. I had no idea your mother was a physician and that she is in your nation working so hard. My film had my mom in it as well. And I got a little bit of my family’s story [in there]. I loved the connections there. The community connections between our films. You could see the threads.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: It’s an honour to meet you as well. I’m a huge fan of your work. I don’t know how you managed to write Seven Fallen Feathers. It was tough to read. I can’t imagine spending so much time immersed in that particular story. It was profound to see it on screen and to see you in that place.

NOW: Tanya, speaking specifically to your experiences writing Seven Fallen Feathers, and reporting on these stories beforehand as a Toronto Star journalist, could you talk a little bit about the experience of confronting the neglect from settler institutions like police and media as a journalist, and how the frustration just grew as you approached the book and then the film?

Tanya Talaga's Spirit to Soar is among the Indigenous films at Hot Docs
Courtesy of Makwa Creative

Tanya Talaga returns to Thunder Bay in Spirit To Soar

TT: There’s been a long time in Canadian media that no one has really wanted to listen to our stories. They haven’t wanted to hear everything that we have to say and how we see the world: our experiences of being violently separated from the land; our experiences of our families being broken up over generations; our experiences of having members of our family incarcerated and suffering addictions that pull away from community.

I started journalism in 1995 at the Toronto Star. One story every once in a while was okay, but not an ongoing analysis as to what was happening. I started covering the story of the seven in 2011 when I went to Thunder Bay. If you look at the media in Thunder Bay at the time, stories on disappearance of our kids were briefs. This was before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, social media and Idle No More.

I pitched a story to my national editor on why Indigenous people don’t vote in elections. My editor thought it was exotic. But I knew that if you’re a status Indian in this country, you did not receive the right to vote until 1960. I went to Thunder Bay to go sit with Stan Beardy, who was the then Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. That’s where I found out about the seven fallen feathers. This is a very long explanation to your question, but I think it’s a necessary one. It shows the arc of how long we’ve been telling these stories.

We’re still fighting for space. We’re still fighting for space in media, film and books. Everywhere. Telling our story is really important. Also telling it from the perspective that we have.

EMT: I read Seven Fallen Feathers and was so touched, moved and angered by everything in that book. And then I listened to Canadaland’s Thunder Bay podcast and have had many conversations with people about Thunder Bay in particular and the racism that exists there. It feels so familiar. The racism on the prairies that we see every day and feel every day is so similar to what exists in Thunder Bay. I see so many similarities between our stories and the violence that exists towards our own people, on our own land.

In my film, I talk about the opioid crisis. I talk about all of the systemic barriers that are in place when it comes to health, wellness and accessing basic services. There’s also that underlying but also very present history of settler colonialism on our land. One of the participants in the film said that it’s dangerous to be native and walk around in the city of Lethbridge at night, and even in the daytime. That sense of a constant fear for your life or just a constant feeling of being prey for settler colonialism is very present in both of our films.

I also saw so many parallels between our stories in the ways that it’s impossible to be objective and step away from a story when it’s your people, when it’s your family, when it’s your land. It’s often expected of documentary filmmakers to be this objective lens, to have that one degree of removal from the story. It’s impossible when it’s your own community, when you yourself have felt that violence and have felt everything that your participants are feeling to some degree.
It’s about not necessarily changing the way that we tell stories but honouring our traditional forms of storytelling and the fact that it’s so much more than a story. It’s who we are.

TT: We film colonial oppression. When we talk about our stories, this is what falls out of our lives. Spirit To Soar is not just a story of what the police did or did not do. This is a story of what Canada has done. This is a story of failure of upholding the treaties. This is a story of inequality and inequities that are happening in all of our communities right now.

And it’s not always a simple story. When you look at a newspaper article, I used to get frustrated because I would have 700-800 words and I would want to say all of these things. You can’t really say all those things because your editor will look at it and just start cutting, saying “this is the story, you have to stay focused.” But our storytelling is different.

Lee Maracle once told me that we see forwards and backwards and present all at the same time when we tell our stories. You can see it in all of our creators. You see it in Elle-Máijá. You see it in our artists, musicians, everything, because it is who we are.

NOW: Going back to your journalism days I’m sure the editors were like, “you have to remove yourself from these stories.” They impose this idea that you have to be impartial. You have to present both sides of the story. But the history of that type of journalism also led to the neglect of these stories.

TT: If I would have started writing like I write now, I probably wouldn’t have had a job. Things have evolved a lot. I think our youth have done a lot of the hard work of educating and telling people what is okay and what’s not okay. It’s not an easy journey to get to the place we’re in now. And we’re still very much fighting for every single inch.

Esther Tailfeathers with her daughter Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and others working to help their community. The scene is from Meaning of Empathy, one of the Indigenous films at Hot Docs
Courtesy of Seen Through Woman Prod. and NFB

Esther Tailfeathers with her daughter Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and others working to help their community through the opioid crisis.

EMT: I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m able to tell the kinds of stories that I want to tell because of all of the work that was done before my generation of storytellers. I have so many people to thank: Alanis Obomsawin, Tracey Deer, Lisa Jackson and Loretta Todd. There’s so many Indigenous women filmmakers, but also just generally Indigenous filmmakers like Gil Cardinal who pushed back against this settler colonial lens and sterile way of telling stories.

It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out. How do I tell stories in ways that don’t replicate these commonly accepted extractive forms of filmmaking and storytelling? My film is a co-production with the National Film Board. One of the reasons that I decided to make it a co-production and become the majority co-producer is because I wanted to care for my community stories. A full NFB production means that the institution essentially owns those stories. All of them go into the archives at the NFB. And that is really troubling for me.

At least 100 people participated in this film in front of the camera at some point. There’s like 150 hours of footage from my community; stories that don’t necessarily belong to me. Just because I’m from the community, just because I’m the filmmaker, doesn’t mean that I own the rights to those stories. It was something I had to really carefully consider. I think that’s something that most Indigenous filmmakers are consistently having to navigate.

How do we engage in relationships with Canadian institutions in a way that doesn’t allow them to continue to consume and control our stories? I haven’t figured it out necessarily, but it’s very much a part of my process to navigate how to tell stories in an ethical way and how to be accountable to my own community first and foremost. I don’t get to just walk away at the end of the day.

It kind of reminds me of just how so many of us in whatever sphere we’re working in end up having to do additional labour that isn’t really expected of settlers. It also brings to mind how so many people who have experienced loss within our communities end up also becoming reluctant activists or advocates for a cause that they don’t want to necessarily be advocates for. But it’s flung into their lives often because of tragedy, loss and grief. It all feels connected to me, just in terms of these additional burdens that are placed upon us because of this history of settler colonialism and the ongoing realities of settler colonialism that we have to navigate in every single aspect of our lives.

NOW: When you’re working for colonial institutions like the Toronto Star or some film company, colonial attitudes can seep into the story. Tanya, sometimes it feels like journalism rules are rigged against us. I’m thinking of Pacinthe Mattar’s Walrus article, Objectivity Is A Privilege Afforded To White Journalists, where she describes having to go above and beyond to verify arguments and statements made by Black people. There’s a benefit of the doubt that’s given to people in official positions (read: white people), which is not given to the person you interviewed from the community or the reserve.

TT: That does evolve. In Seven Falling Feathers, I took what elders said. I took what the blind man saw in his vision about what happened to Jordan [Wabasse] and I use that as fact because that’s what the elders saw. And didn’t the elder turn out to be right.

When I wrote Seven Fallen Feathers, I didn’t go with convention. It took a long time for me to get to that voice of confidence, for me to say, “you know what, police, Canadian justice institutions and everything else: you’ve had your say. And this is the evidence. It’s so clear what has happened.”

Reggie Bushie is portrayed in a photograph in Spirit To Soar, one of the Indigenous films at Hot Docs
Courtesy of Makwa Creative

A photograph of Reggie Bushie, one of the seven fallen feathers.

EMT: Something that that we talk about a lot within the Indigenous film industry is the idea of narrative sovereignty. And what does that mean? It can mean a lot of things. For so long, Indigenous people and Indigenous stories have been misrepresented, co-opted and appropriated by non-Indigenous people. So narrative sovereignty is in its most basic form about us telling our own stories. But I think narrative sovereignty can mean very different things for the filmmakers and the communities and the nations that they come from.

The film industry and the art of filmmaking is so often framed from this very individualistic perspective. You have filmmakers who are auteurs, masters of their craft, they have very distinct styles and it’s all about them as the artist. Whereas I’m trying to work from a community-based collective style of storytelling; or at least honouring the fact that everything that I have to offer as a storyteller is just reflective of the people and the places that I come from.

My NFB producer, David Christensen, is amazing and really supportive of my work. He’s always trusted that maybe I know what I’m doing. But it was also a battle in terms of trying to articulate what I was setting out to do.

We spent close to four years filming this. We filmed a lot of people in that course of time. That is not necessarily a conventional way of making a documentary because you’re only allotted like 90 minutes or two hours maximum to tell this entire story. But I didn’t want to present a portrait of my community that was somehow monolithic or left out so many important voices. So along the way, it was really about trying to express or articulate why there were so many voices being included and trying to explain that there will be a way to make all of these voices fit. “Just trust me. There’s going to be a way for all of these voices to fit within the film.”

Like Tanya was saying with journalism, she’s having to meet a word limit. With film, we’re having to meet this time limit.

We spent a lot of time in the edit suite just trying to find a way to cohesively thread all of these voices together so that it would create a portrait that was very broad and inclusive of the diversity of lived experiences within my community. It was a real struggle. I’m trying to figure out how to honour and respect an entire community in a very short period of time.

It’s a real challenge to navigate all of that and also work in an industry that’s so streamlined. There’s often a conveyor belt in terms of how things are done. You make the film in this way, it’s distributed and marketed in this way, then it needs to go these festivals and then it needs to have a theatrical release.

Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to make the film accessible to my own community and to other Indigenous communities, first and foremost, because that is the intended audience for the film. How do we navigate through the expectations of how to distribute and market a film while also honouring community, accountability and reciprocity in terms of this process?

NOW: Considering the audience for the film is a really interesting thing. You made this for your community. How often do you have to bump into that situation where you want to speak to your community, and you want to have this purity of voice, but you have to consider this colonizer audience? Is that all part and parcel of this conversation of narrative sovereignty?

TT: It’s even what our films are about: colonization and always having to fight against it, always having to explain, always having to educate. That’s what Spirit To Soar is about. It is about how do we wrestle with the fact that our people have been in and around the Great Lakes since time began, and we have had to deal with Canada for 150 years.

Esther Tailfeathers holds a baby in Meaning of Empathy, one of the Indigenous films at Hot Docs
Courtesy of Seen Through Woman Prod. and NFB

Esther Tailfeathers works on the frontline of a drug poisoning epidemic on the Kainai Reserve.

EMT: What you did so well in the book and also the film was to humanize these stories. I think that’s what we’re both trying to do here. There are all of these issues; all of these really bad things that have happened to our people and continue to happen to our people every day. You can name the statistics; you can name all of the ways the treaties have been broken and all of the ways that settler colonialism violently affects us every day. People just dissociate from it. People are desensitized.

Ultimately, I wanted to humanize these stories.

The drug poisoning crisis is now impacting people across the country. The issue of harm reduction and treating drug and alcohol users with dignity and respect is a really common conversation across the country. I wanted to be able to humanize the people who are impacted the most: the people who are drug users and also their family members and loved ones.

There were so many problematic representations of my community that were presented through a lens of tragedy and trauma; presenting our people as though we’re constantly in a place of deficit, which is true on some levels. I wanted to be able to present the public with a portrait that wasn’t that. I wanted to honour the strength and dignity of my people with love, compassion and respect, which are some of our core teachings. That’s how we’ve survived genocide. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are; through those core principles of who we are as Blackfoot people.

The people that I know within that community are finding a way forward with very few resources. I want the settlers to be able to see this film and understand that there are so many people within my community who are working so hard for solutions with very few resources; but also to recognize that our people are so capable of doing this work on our own. We have been doing this work on our own for a very long time. I love my community more than anything. I wanted to be able to give my community the gift of honouring who we are as a people.

Documenting this really important moment that I think is going to really help change the dialogue around addiction or substance use disorder and Indigenous people in this country. It’s a very, very complicated and often divisive topic within our communities. I certainly hope that in providing a story that’s rooted in love and respect for our people, we’re able to at least push the conversation a little bit further.

TT: You did that beautifully. I loved all of the people that you focused on in the film. My heart soared and broke with them. It was a beautiful film. You portrayed us as people who have families, hopes, love, heart and respect.


Listen to the entire conversation on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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