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Director’s Notebook

Interview with KÍMMAPIIYIPITSSINI: THE MEANING OF EMPATHY director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is an ambitious documentary from fiction and documentary director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. The film explores how Canada’s historic and current colonial project has led to a substance abuse crisis that has deeply impacted Tailfeathers’ Blackfoot community of the Kainai First Nation. 

Elle-Máijá spoke to Hot Docs about what it was like to make about film in the community to which she is so deeply connected, and how a Blackfoot teaching of compassion and strength, kímmapiiyipitssini, informed her filmmaking as a practice in harm reduction.

Hot Docs: Your film focuses attention on how effective harm reduction methods have been in helping people get healthy from substance abuse, despite some reticence from your community. Who is the audience for your film and what do you hope they take away from it?

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: This film is for my community, first and foremost, and for other Indigenous communities who are facing similar issues. It is meant to be an educational tool that can be utilized for dialog within other Indigenous communities. But I also made it for a broader audience, in the hopes that it might help shift attitudes towards a more empathetic approach to people who live with substance use disorders.

HD: The film also explores the systemic issues behind drug and alcohol abuse in your community, and you walk us back through the settler colonial history of Canada. But it's also a very intimate film because you’re filming with a community that, I believe, you grew up in. Can you talk about what it was like to marry the micro and the macro, and how this affected the form and style of the final film?

EMT: Sure. I actually I grew up all over the place because of my parents’ work and my mom's education, so I did not grow up in Kainai. I moved back to that part of the world when I was 15. But I've always gone home for the summer holidays, and that's where my mom and her side of the family lives, and it’s always been home. But I would say it was a huge undertaking and it took a great amount of care to make sure I was respectfully telling my own family members’ and community members’ stories. Often, documentary films about these types of social justice issues are made by filmmakers who are not from the communities that are being portrayed in the film. As someone from the community, I have to be accountable to my own people and my own family. I can't just walk away from the community, and so it was a real practice in ensuring that I was consistently working from a place of respect and reciprocity and, most importantly, compassion and love.

HD: Can you talk a little bit about how learning to work with subjects who were in the process of healing from addiction affected your filmmaking practice?

EMT: Absolutely. I consistently had to navigate this difficult conversation and do a lot of self-interrogation as a filmmaker, because we hold so much power and privilege being the ones who are behind the camera, being the ones who decide what the film ends up looking like and what the story is in the end. So it was a constant self-interrogation: I am I doing harm to this person in telling their story? And what will be the ramifications for this person five or 10 years down the road? I tried to implement the idea of kímmapiiyipitssini into my filmmaking, implementing harm reduction as a practice through film. Kímmapiiyipitssini is a Blackfoot teaching that essentially means to give compassion, to have empathy. It upholds empathy as a survival mechanism, as a way for our people to move forward together, and it's one of the ways that we've survived genocide and so kímmapiiyipitssini became my guiding principle in my process as a filmmaker. I had to consistently implement that in my work and think about how I can do as little harm possible to this person as possible and how can I work from an empathetic lens.

HD: Has your community seen the film?

EMT: Most of the people who participated in the film have seen it and are happy with it. That they were able to see a rough cut of the film was really important to me, to make sure that they have agency, especially editorial agency, over how they're represented. We are trying to figure out how to do a community-wide screen during the pandemic. The original idea was to have a collective community screening before it premiered at the festival, and we're trying to figure out if there's a way to do that online. It’s tough, wanting to make a film for a community and battling the pandemic to figuring out how to logistically screen it for people.

HD: Can you talk a little bit about how you put together the financing for the film?

EMT: The first money we received was from the Hot Docs CrossCurrents International Doc Fund. Initially, it was going to be a short film but then I decided it needed to be a feature. I also received a fellowship in 2016 to participate in the Doc Accelerator program. Then the film became a National Film Board co-production with my company, and we received Telefilm funding through the Indigenous stream. Finally, Hot Docs came in again with a post-production grant through the CrossCurrents Canada Doc Fund.

Interview conducted by Hot Docs industry programmer Madelaine Russo.

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