‘The Body Remembers’ a real-time story of two Indigenous women

Vincent Schilling

Directors Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn and Ava DuVernay bring #TheBodyRemembers to theaters and Netflix

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a film that tells the story of two Indigenous women who happen to meet by chance, and was directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers & Kathleen Hepburn, hit Thursday by storm, trending higher on social media than the Macy's day parade.

The hashtag #TheBodyRemembers made an impression on social media after Compton-raised director Ava Duvernay and her production company Array had backed the project and Du Vernay tweeted about it yesterday. She also shared her recognition of the Native land she occupied. Du Vernay encouraged others to acknowledge the Native land they were on with social media posts as well.

Array's public relations department sent a message to Indian Country Today, which said in part, "#TheBodyRemembers is trending nationally on Twitter now, currently at #5! It’s due to Ava’s/ARRAY’s social media campaign to highlight the film’s release on Netflix. 

Array says the post was part of DuVernay's "call to action for people to discover what Native/indigenous tribes occupied the land," that they are living on now. Array provided the website resource https://native-land.ca/ where people interested could research the original territories of their location and could then "pay their respects to elders past and present," and use the hashtags #HonorNativeLand #TheBodyRemembers. 

Du Vernay tweeted, “As I gather with family today in Compton, I stand on land of the Tongva Nation. What Indigenous Territory are you on? Find out at http://Native-Land.ca. Then use #TheBodyRemembers to honor the tribe + celebrate the acclaimed Indigenous drama now on @Netflix via @ARRAYNow.

According to the film’s director’s statement from Tailfeathers & Hepburn, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a title borrowed from an essay by Cree poet and scholar, Billy-Ray Belcourt. In searching for the words to embody the fragility, strength, and intimate knowledge of colonial grief distinct to the lived experience of Indigenous women like Rosie and Áila, we sought inspiration from Indigenous poets.”

The Body Remembers Directors Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
The Body Remembers Directors Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Courtesy photos via Array.

In the film, Tailfeathers plays an Indigenous woman who happens upon another Indigenous woman in a personal crisis, she reaches out to help and a relationship of sorts emerges. The other actress Violet Nelson, is a relative newcomer to the acting scene and portrays a woman in the midst of an abusive relationship.

The film’s synopsis:

Two Indigenous women from vastly different backgrounds find their worlds colliding on an East Vancouver, B.C. sidewalk when brutality and fear drives one of them out from her home and into the cold rain. As this intimate yet challenging encounter develops, what began as violent and terrifying tentatively expands as the women’s shared imagery and cultural experience weave a fragile bond between them. Both women now must face their own unique struggle as they navigate the complexities of motherhood, class, race, and the ongoing legacy of colonialism.


The directors also issued a statement about the film, which was almost entirely shot in real-time, and with a handheld camera by Norm Li.

“With the exception of three prologue scenes, the film takes place entirely in real-time and was shot on 16mm as a stitched continuous take in order to achieve an experience for the viewer which is urgent, intimate, naturalistic, and highly suspenseful. The continuous action was incredibly valuable for our cast who were experiencing the emotional trajectory of their characters from beginning to end, just as an audience would. The camera itself was essentially a character of its own, needing to be as fluid and responsive as the cast within each scene. There lies a certain freedom in challenging conventions and we felt strongly that to allow the audience to be fully immersed in our character’s experience, to build the slow and steady tension of not being able to look away, and to feel a sense of implication in the reality of these women, that this was the way our story needed to be told,” said the official statement.

A film review

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is perhaps a bit too real for some viewers, but within this sentiment is where the magic lies. The fact that this film is shot in real-time is painful and agonizing and lies so close to the truth, you struggle not to look away, but of course, this is impossible.

In a matter of minutes, any viewer is sure to invest in the relationship between Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson's characters. As an Indigenous man, I felt the relationships of my own sisters, my own aunts, my Totas. I felt genuine pain watching this and genuine loss for the real and true portrayal of Indigenous relationships—that many times are struggling not to be lost—in a world that has cast them out.

As the film continued to unfold its truth and its reality, I found myself aching for a happy ending—that one often sees in a fairytale. But the directors weren't going to let me off so easy, they, in the course of this beautifully choreographed and created work of art, asked me to stay along for the ride, which I couldn't help but to oblige. I wanted to know even if I didn't want to know. I faced the truth even if I didn't want to face the truth.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open tells a story that for so long has needed to be told about Indigenous people—the original storytellers of this land— who have been removed from the stories told on their own land by non-Indigenous people. These non-Indigenous people then, in turn, told their own historically inaccurate stories at the exclusion of the original storytellers. Tailfeathers and Nelson say “No More!.”

I have little criticism except I wished it could have been a little longer or dived in a bit more to the complexity of these two women. 

The heartache I feel is real, having been on both sides of this fence, but of course as a man, so ultimately this is something I could never understand.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is beautiful in its tragedy, artistic in its truth and tells a story that has longed to be told for generations. It did indeed 'break the world open' by telling a story that many non-Indigenous have tried to silence for too long.

Official Press Information

Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY acquired the critically-acclaimed independent film The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. In honor of Native American Heritage month, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open premieres on Netflix, November 27th.

The film, directed/written by two women, one of whom is Native/Indigenous - Elle-Máijá Tailfeather and Kathleen Hepburn focus on two Indigenous women, played by Tailfeather and newcomer, Violet Nelson.

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling and Instagram - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com 

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Comments (2)
No. 1-1

I can't agree with your assessment of this film. While there are good performances and good directing - the overall tone is just pure trauma porn. Worse, it is exploitative of women it claims to want us to have empathy for. Rosie stays in the camera's gaze, with no agency and no escape from the gaze. This is not done ironically. This is done for the self aggrandizement of the filmmakers. This is white feminist guilt masquerading behind an Indigenous face - and feeling good about itself, because after all, Rosie goes back to the abusive boyfriend because she wasn't quite ready for her liberation. Please look closer. If this film was made by only a white person - and not co-directed with an Indigenous woman - would the reviews be so generous? Women who have really lived in the margins and on the street find this film lacking in authenticity and as about as sincere as a plastic trinket. I've been there. And this story is positioned for career advancement and not empowering Indigenous women except the filmmaker.