Hot Docs review: Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy

Director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers's doc is a methodical portrait of the work required to affect a paradigm shift in drug treatment


KÍMMAPIIYIPITSSINI: THE MEANING OF EMPATHY (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Canada). 125 minutes. Rating: NNNN


The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s documentary is both an intimate and expansive portrait of an Indigenous community grappling with the opioid epidemic.

Set primarily on the Kainai First Nation in Alberta, Kímmapiiyipitssini (a Blackfoot word that means giving kindness to each other) profiles several people who candidly discuss their struggles, while front-line doctors, including the director’s mother Esther Tailfeathers, attempt to affect a paradigm shift in thinking around addiction treatment – from 12-step abstinence programs to harm reduction.

Shot over five years and narrated by the director, the movie is a methodical, vérité portrait of nitty-gritty work. In addition to visiting people’s homes and listening to personal stories, Tailfeathers shows the kind of tireless grassroots work – in clinics, in boardrooms, on street corners, at community events – required to convince people this new epidemic needs a new approach.

She also captures hostile push back in scenes showing users of a (now shuttered) safe-injection site in Lethbridge being surveilled and harassed by the local community. Not only are doctors working to change the hearts and minds of wary people grappling with deep traumas, but they’re up against structural forces, racism, the weight of historical injustice and government apathy.

What emerges is a compelling look at work that exists in a space between patient resolve and intense urgency.

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@KevinRitchie

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