“Power In Vulnerability” The Writers, Directors, & Star of ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ Speak

“Power In Vulnerability” The Writers, Directors, & Star of ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ Speak
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Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, recently released The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a film directed by Elle ­Máijá Tailfeathers & Kathleen Hepburn. It’s a beautifully intimate, real-time portrait that follows two Indigenous women from vastly different backgrounds whose worlds collide when one of them is fleeing a violent domestic attack.  The directors and star Violet Nelson spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to invite discourse on these issues.

A love poem to women, the film weaves a compellingly simple story around the complex themes of racialized female bodies, a country’s failure to support its most vulnerable youth, and the continuing effects of colonial violence. Inspired by true events, this intimate, immersive film was shot on location in East Vancouver, B.C. on 16mm film, in real-time, and uses seamlessly edited takes to recreate the immediacy and intimacy of the situation.

Borrowed from an essay by Cree poet-scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt, the title The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a film that speaks to “the embodied presence of colonialism within Indigenous people and the trauma we carry, but also the beauty and strength of our ancestors,” said co-writer Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

What Is The Film About?

It’s about so many things,” said Elle-Máijá. “The film is inspired by an experience I had in the same neighborhood where the film takes place – in East Vancouver. The characters, Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and Rosie (Violet Nelson), are very similar to characters we met that day, but the film is fictionalized.”

The story is meant to speak to complex themes of Indigenous motherhood, sovereignty of the body, using the body as a political landscape, and urban diaspora, which is defined as the dispersion of people from their homeland. “It also speaks, ultimately, to love and kinship among Indigenous women and the way we transcend these structures and systems of oppression.”

Kathleen Hepburn added, “I think in the process of writing the film, one of the things we had written on the wall as a reminder was, ‘These small acts of resistance can help heal these acts of violence and create space for each other.’”

Likewise, reticent actress Violet Nelson was encouraged by her mother to attend the audition. “While reading the script, I realized doing this could help indigenous women, but also women in general, to know that they’re not alone and that there are other people going through what Rosie is going through,” said Violet.

As a newcomer to the film world, Nelson said she learned not to suppress her feelings from the filming and acting experience. “Kathleen and Máijá really helped me understand that it’s okay to feel upset or feel sad or feel happy, but also to show those feelings, on-screen and off-screen.”

Healing Through Resistance

The characters of Rosie and Áila come from two different lives. The screenwriters wanted to show the complexities within an Indigenous identity through these lived-in experiences. “Áila benefits from light-skinned privilege,” added Elle-Máijá. “She’s middle class, university-educated, and connected to her culture and community, whereas Rosie is the opposite. Áila has almost a survivor’s guilt that comes along with that privilege she carries.

Rosie grew up in foster care, which means she’s also been disconnected from family and heritage. Eventually, this leads her into poverty and reliant on an abusive relationship. “The collision of these two women is an opportunity to explore these deeper connections of Indigenous identity, how class plays into our community, and the violent reality and common narrative Indigenous people face.

The writers said there’s a stigma against the Indigenous people in regards to reconciliation. But, in reality, “Indigenous people face violent systems of oppression every day in Canada.” Because screenwriter Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers feels a connection to Áila, she also feels a certain responsibility to help her brothers and sisters who haven’t benefited from government policies.

There’s power in vulnerability and there’s power in love. It is Indigenous women who hold our communities up and hold our communities together, so we wanted to honor those vulnerabilities and the gentle strength in indigenous women.”

While working on the film, the creators met many Indigenous youth who lived through the foster care system. “Resistance is important for healing,” said Kathleen. “Turning to different kinds of knowledge is a positive path to healing.”

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Kathleen Hepburn

A Hyper-Focused, Universal Message

Despite the very specific focus of the story, the screenwriters still want a broad audience to connect with the film. Throughout the writing process, the writers spent a great deal of time thinking who they could connect with most deeply.

The answer? Indigenous women, but also youth. They wanted for these voices to have representation. That said, they also found universal appeal in the script, based on screenings across the world.

We want women to feel a sense of validation of their own experiences.” For non-Indigenous viewers, the connection is a feeling that they’re not alone. While doing research, the writers found the system was overwhelmed and many of the shelters were completely full.

It’s never as simple as just leaving an abusive situation. One shocking statistic is that the majority of women murdered by an intimate partner are murdered after they’ve left. Ironically, it’s more dangerous, relatively speaking, to leave than it is to stay.”

We wanted to speak to the complexities of that. It’s not a black and white choice. We hope broader audiences come to that realization. We need more services and support for women in these ugly situations, and we need men to stop being violent.

Artists and Advocates

The story specifically spoke to ARRAY (Artists – Advocates – Audiences Aligned), who are known for outreach, but also compelling stories for specific niche audiences. “They’re not waiting for approval. They’re making their own space,” said the duo about the collaboration. “The reason it appeals on a universal level is because we were speaking specifically to Indigenous women.”

As writers, the screenwriting process felt experimental, but they knew it would be an “effort of discomfort.” Through real-life experiences, documentary work, and acting experience, the creators worked together in a collaborative effort to make the real-life experience fictionalized, but also their own.

We were thinking about themes like sovereignty of the body, the body as a political landscape, Indigenous motherhood, and finding ways to bring all of that into these characters and their lived experience. One thing that was very obvious from the beginning is that neither of us experienced foster care, neither of us lived in the skin of someone like Rosie, so we thought it was absolutely imperative that we work with young women who lived through experiences similar to Rosie.

The writers completed a scriptwriting workshop with six women who could relate to Rosie on a personal level. Listening to their stories, they could better define what it means to live a life like their main character. “We found new ways of experimenting and trying new things to collaborate on a deep level.”

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Violet Nelson

Throughout the process, the creators also gauged audience feedback but focused on the core of the story. “The tension came out in the shooting and the performance of it. Using one take really holds the audience in their seats and creates this feeling of never knowing when you’re going to get a breath or escape from the moment.”

Preparing the Long Take

The directors worked with actors for four months, as if they were preparing to conduct a play in the theater. While working closely with Violet Nelson, they found a way to bring the actress’ essence directly into the character in an authentic manner.

“We felt somewhat of an insecurity and need to heighten the drama,” said the screenwriters about the differences between the first draft and the shooting draft. “There were a number of drafts where we said what if this happens, but ultimately that was dishonoring our original intention of having this simple, yet complicated encounter between these two strangers that only lasts a couple of hours.”

There is such a deep drama in that simple encounter, so we scaled back to honor the simplicity of the story, rather than make it more dramatic than it had to be. The structure was clear since it was based on a true story, so it was more about the finer details.”

But in the end, it was all about creating authentic characters and an engaging story. “There’s a deep poetry in reality, so we wanted to be able to speak with the same language, which is the poetry of reality and women’s experiences that aren’t often seen on screen. Women deserve space. Our voices matter. There’s strength in beauty and vulnerability, so it is a feminist film, but it’s not trying to hit it with a hammer.”

We had some complicated conversations with men about what they should and shouldn’t walk away with, but ultimately we came to the conclusion that this is about women and how it might resonate with women. Men can take away what they want. We see mens’ stories all the time. The industry is saturated with stories about straight white men and this is an opportunity not to do that. It’s the beautiful, complicated, lived-in story of Indigenous women on screen.”

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