Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ Rebel Love Story

By August 12, 2019Choice

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers Bihttoš (Rebel) (2014)(stills) COURTESY MOVING IMAGES

Some films stay with you. Each time you listen and experience them, your sensibility shifts and you are altered by the stories at their centre. You find another reason to weep. Perhaps it is the strength of a child’s voice, speaking the Sámi language, the songful sound, thick in her telling, or the aching question that begins the film Bihttoš (Rebel) (2014), “Why couldn’t our love guide him through the darkness?”

I’ve been thinking about how we listen in an expansive and enlivened way[1] to honour the stories that are shared with us, visually, aurally—an embodied listening that allows us to be in relation to, to move and to be moved.

In a sense this 2014 film is an origin story for the filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, also an award-winning writer, director, producer and actor. She retells her parents’ heartbreaking and hopeful rebel love story. Sámi and Blackfoot activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, their love traversed oceans and continents. Bihttoš also portrays the compassion and pain between a daughter and her father, the fierceness of love for one’s homelands and peoples as well as generations of kindnesses.

Few filmmakers are as fearless as Tailfeathers in their clarity; her voice speaks to injustices, interwoven with familial pain, the pain of children and the trauma that is rooted in systems that disregard our humanity, felt in our lives, materially. In her telling, we experience the breaking down and breaking apart, the picking up, the carrying, the not knowing, the material consequences of systems and structures and the fallout of this hurt that extends across generations. The strength of this story is partly that it is true. It is told experimentally through stop-motion, collaged archival photographs, multiple female narrators, poetic re-enactments, spoken partly in Sámi, connecting histories that are felt and held in the spaces between us. Tailfeathers does this all while denying audiences a spectacle of pain. It is an ethical, rigorous, felt film that moves the viewer.

We see the ways that collectively, our lives have been changed by residential and boarding schools, systems that removed children from their communities, replacing he familial home with structures—places, languages, ideas—that damaged children, later called survivors. The intergenerational impacts of this damage are handled in the film as a considered and ethical kind of materiality. The context for Bihttoš is partly the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada and thousands of survivor testimonials. As a Blackfoot and Sámi film-maker, Tailfeathers experiences both of these histories and their legacies in her family.

The narration by a girl’s voice in Sámi is a gesture towards a love of language, a decentring of English, a wrapping of the body in this language; the listener moves uneasily, hesitant in this sound, or they feel the texture and sound resonating in different moments, in different places of their body. The film begins from this place, from this place of language, when language was a primary colonizing force in children’s lives.  It reveals the everyday experiences of difference within upper-middle-class white spaces in North Dakota—neighbourhoods, schools, athletic events. These moments settle slowly in the body as sediment in a lake. The last image is of Elle-Máijá’s father: the couple sit in a small boat facing one another. The frame moves to Tailfeather’s father and his head moves towards his chest. I wonder, what does justice feel like in our families?

In the telling of her parents’ activism, we understand the connection between histories and lived realities—that history informs our experiences, but also shows us that our agency, our actions can change  the course of history. At the centre of this relationship between history and experience are forms of radical rebel love.

NOTES
[1] Elwood Jimmy used this language to speak and write about the kinds of work he gestures towards.

This Choice appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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