The real-life story that inspired the new local feature The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open took place during one of those rain-drenched Vancouver rush hours when the damp goes right to the bone.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers was walking along Dundas Street in Vancouver’s East Side when she spotted a teenaged woman standing in the downpour without a coat.
“She was distraught, she was barefoot, she was visibly Indigenous, and she was very pregnant,” the Vancouver actor-director recalls, speaking from a film shoot in Hamilton, Ontario, and sharing a conference call with the film’s codirector and cowriter, Kathleen Hepburn. “Nobody was stopping to help her.”
In a description that mirrors a scene early in her new movie, Tailfeathers realized the woman was focused on a male yelling at her from across the street. Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai First Nation and the Sámi from Norway, invited her back to her nearby apartment, confident that she could find her help. But getting someone out of a domestic-abuse situation turned out not to be so easy—and not just because every shelter she called that day was full.
Tailfeathers has never forgotten the woman or her story—even though she’s never seen her again. She’s been haunted by the thought that the cars whipping by that day might have stopped for Tailfeathers if she was in distress; she has lighter skin and can pass as non-Indigenous. The experience led her to take a hard look at her own relative privilege, and her presumptions that she and the system could rescue the person being abused.
The resulting film is loosely based on the event, and focuses on the complex relationship that forms between two women—Áila, who’s educated and housed in a well-appointed apartment, and Rosie, who lives in an abusive home with her boyfriend and his mother.
Tailfeathers knew from the outset that she wanted to shoot it in real time, seamlessly edited to resemble a single take—achieving an intimacy and intensity it might not have otherwise.
“Spending a couple hours with that woman had such an impact on me that I kind of wanted to see how that story could impact audiences just having to sit with those hours, too,” Tailfeathers explains.
Hepburn adds there were other compelling reasons to take on the momentous challenge of a real-time, meticulously choreographed shoot that would require camera operators to get in and out of taxis and move from room to room with the actors. “It was such a closed experience in so many ways,” Hepburn observes. “So much happened in just a few hours: it was two strangers that may never see each other again but will have, potentially, a life-changing impact on each other.”
Hepburn adds the real-time approach also aided Violet Nelson, who plays Rosie; she’s a 17-year-old who had never acted before. “It gave her an opportunity to react and respond in an authentic way,” says Hepburn, whose debut film was 2017’s critically acclaimed Never Steady, Never Still.
Cinematographer Norm Li ended up shooting the long takes in 16mm. Hepburn describes an intense, five-day process where everything was plotted out and the story was shot in its full 90-odd minutes each day. “It was so surreal and also exciting: I was watching the whole film through every night,” Hepburn enthuses, revealing there were 12 camera transitions designed to seamlessly meld into the film.
Preparations included a four-week rehearsal process in a small studio space—a rarity for indie film, which actors often have to do on the fly. “I started in theatre, and what I loved is that you have the opportunity to rehearse for a long time and spend time with the other actors,” Tailfeathers says. “So we wanted to experiment with that and see if we could re-create that magic.”
Tailfeathers and Hepburn took pains to portray the sensitive matter of abuse delicately, conscious about not showing the violence when it’s inflicted. In fact, the male who terrorizes Rosie doesn’t appear onscreen, though his presence, and his voice, looms large.
“As women filmmakers, we don’t want to contribute to the sensationalization of the violence on-screen,” Hepburn explains. “We don’t want to make it exciting or thrilling to watch....And we wanted to give the power to women—give them the voice on-screen.”
The Vancouver setting is just as integral to the story, underscoring the dichotomies in the movie.
“I wanted to honour the Indigenous community that lives in East Vancouver and especially Indigenous youth that are aging out of care,” Tailfeathers says, referring to the controversial B.C. system that has cut people off of foster-care support at the age of 19. “And then it’s just about witnessing all the change and displacement happening there....A lot of single moms are really struggling to get by in one of the most expensive places in the world. So it’s the beauty and the pain of East Vancouver.”
“We often don’t get to see a Vancouver that we know on-screen,” adds Hepburn, who also lives in the East Side. “We live in this neighbourhood but we feel so conflicted about our presence there and the role of artists in gentrification.”
She points to a scene where Tailfeathers’s Áila is taking a cab up Hastings Street, past the redevelopment happening along that route, and suddenly the mountains come into view. “In those mountains you can see the history of the land and what’s been lost, and then there’s what’s been taken over by condos,” Hepburn says. “We’re really wanting to give an authentic representation of the place that is our home.”
As tied as the filmmakers are to their Vancouver location, The Body Remembers is generating considerable buzz at festivals far outside this city and its complex social problems—starting with the film’s premiere at Berlinale.
“It’s been disheartening but beautiful and profound that every time we’ve had a screening, someone will say, ‘I’ve had an experience where I tried to reach out but nothing happened,’” Tailfeathers says. “It’s very specific to East Vancouver and Indigenous women, but it’s also such a universal story.”