Award-winning filmmaker tackles misrepresentation of crisis in her nation

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the number of opioid-related drug overdoses in Canada.

The story is the same in province after province, with last year being the deadliest ever for opioid-related deaths.

Filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers says fentanyl started showing up in her home territory – the Kainai Nation south of Calgary – in 2014.

Her latest film, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is a documentary, five years in the making about the opioid crisis and what the community has been doing to overcome that crisis.

“My mother is one of the few medical doctors on the reserve and fentanyl hit our community in 2014 and I was hearing so many stories from her about what she was witnessing on the front lines and the fact that we had lost so many members in such a short period of time within our community,” says Tailfeathers.

The award-winning actor, screenwriter and director also felt compelled to counter the narratives of her community that she was seeing portrayed in the media.

“I’d also seen so many misrepresentations of our community in the media that were often framed through poverty porn or trauma porn lens and was sort of sensationalizing the crisis through a lens of tragedy rather than showing the strengths of my community and all of the hard work that was happening on the front lines,” says Tailfeathers.

Watch the trailer here:

In her statement about the documentary, Tailfeathers says “Kimmapiiyipitssini is a Blackfoot teaching that reminds us that practising empathy and compassion is how we survive as a people. It is how our ancestors survived genocide and it is how we, as a community, will survive this crisis. Kimmapiiyipitssini is our harm reduction.”

The film is not only about the opioid crisis and some of the solutions to it, but also about treaty, systemic racism and government policies that have harmed Indigenous peoples.

Tailfeathers hopes non-Indigenous viewers of the film recognize the impacts of settler colonialism.

“The racism that we see on the prairies is so explicit. I wanted settler audiences, especially in the prairies to understand there’s a connecting line between everything that’s happened to our people and what we see today with the substance use crisis. And I also thought it was very important to humanize the people who are using drugs and alcohol,” says Tailfeathers.

Kímmapiiyipitssini will have its world premiere at the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival in Toronto later this month.

The release of the film comes on the heels of an award-winning year for Tailfeathers. She starred in, co-wrote and co-directed The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. That film garnered her two Canadian Screen Awards.

“When we made The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, we entered into a really interesting moment in Canadian film and Indigenous film wherein Canadian funding bodies were finally offering Indigenous filmmakers the opportunity to work with the types of resources or the financing that we needed to tell the kinds of stories that we wanted to tell because prior to that, there’s been a long history of inequity or a lack of access to the same resources that settler filmmakers have been provided for decades,” says Tailfeathers.

Tailfeathers says she’s excited about the road ahead with many films from Indigenous filmmakers on the horizon including Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders, a film that Tailfeathers is starring in.

Tailfeathers is already at work on her next feature. A film that she says is a scary, funny, environmental thriller with a love story.

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