While the horrors of residential-school systems are being addressed here in Canada, such is not the case with an equally devastating Scandinavian equivalent.
Vancouver filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers knows this because her father is of the Sami people, who are indigenous to the Sápmi region that covers parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Although Tailfeathers knew that her father was placed in the Sami residential-school system as a child, she didn’t realize the full impact it had on him—and, consequently, their family.
“Over in Norway, it’s not really talked about,” she tells the Straight by phone. “That aspect of history is not discussed in the same way it’s discussed here in Canada. So it hadn’t really occurred to me that I inherited the pain of these memories without ever having experienced these memories of my father. So it led me to further understand what intergenerational trauma means.”
Tailfeathers, who grew up in Arctic Norway, tells the story of how her parents fell in love—and how her father’s secret emotional and psychic wounds finally drove a wedge between them—in her intimate short film “Rebel” (“Bihttoš”), which weaves together reenactments with photo-based collage animation by Kunal Sen.
In her film, Tailfeathers relates how, during a road trip, her father shared his traumatic experiences, which left him with lifelong struggles. As in Canada, Sami children were plucked from their homes and families and placed in schools where they were forced to assimilate to the culture and language of the colonizing countries.
“Rebel” (“Bihttoš”) screens as part of the Made in B.C. short-film program at the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth. Native issues appear in other Made in B.C. works. In the short documentary “Proud to Be Heiltsuk”, high-school filmmakers Elle Brown and Astrid Wilson ask two interviewees of different generations about the importance of maintaining aboriginal cultural roots. That short also screens in the Indigenous Spotlight program, which includes “Kumu Hina: A Place in the Middle”, the true tale of an 11-year-old girl who wants to take on the traditionally male position of leadership of the hula troupe at her school.
Cultural matters are also reflected obliquely in selections such as Kaho Yoshida’s animated B.C. short “Michi”, about a girl whose encounter with woodland creatures serves as an analogy for cross-cultural relations or dealing with social differences.
Bridging divides is a recurring theme in many of the titles in the festival, sometimes quite amazingly. In the case of Tailfeathers’ parents, it happened offscreen. Her mother and father had been estranged from one another for many years, but were moved to reconcile after seeing their daughter’s film. Tailfeathers also hopes to inspire such beneficial conversation and dialogue among Sami audiences and activists. Like her father, she says, many of the people of his generation weren’t able to talk openly about these issues, and instead devoted themselves to indigenous-rights activism and politics as a coping mechanism.
“It’s really my job and my generation’s job to continue the work that they were doing, but that work has evolved,” she says. “So with me, I feel the work is about talking about the way that these histories continue to impact us but on a micro level within families and individuals.”
As culturally specific as the surface issues may be, Tailfeathers also hopes viewers can relate to the universal themes of addressing family histories and secrets. As healing as her film was for her own clan, hopefully it will be equally so for others.
The Made in B.C. program screens on Sunday (April 10) at the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth, which runs from Friday (April 8) to next Friday (April 15) at the Vancity Theatre. For more information, visit the website.