No happy ending in ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’

The new film is a character study of two Indigenous women developing a rocky friendship in real time.


‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ spends an intimate afternoon with Áila, played by Elle Máijá Tailfeathers, and Rosie, Violet Nelson.
Katrin Braggadottir

When we meet Áila and Rosie, the two principal characters in the film The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, they couldn’t be on more different paths. Rosie, who is Kwakwaka’wakw, is beaten down, walking away from an abusive boyfriend and doing so without any support system. Áila, who is Blackfeet/Sami, has just left a stressful visit to the doctor after deciding to get an IUD. Rosie is pregnant. Áila has made the decision not to be, but is not entirely comfortable with her choice. When Áila sees Rosie standing fearfully in the street, her boyfriend screaming at her, she comes to her rescue, and we are thrust smack-dab into the action.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfeet/Sami), who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Kathleen Hepburn (non-Native), has created an intimate and sometimes excruciating character study of two women navigating the uncertain process of getting to know one another in a very short time. Áila needs Rosie to trust her so she can help her. And Rosie certainly needs help, but is stubborn and skeptical about accepting it.

Over the course of the film, we observe Rosie’s and Áila’s relationship blossom in real time. Rosie, vulnerable and hostile, cusses like a sailor. We see her steal Áila’s wallet and behave spitefully, asking Áila if she is into “white guys or something,” after she passes Áila’s light-skinned Indigenous boyfriend in the hall. Later, in a cab ride, she accuses Áila of being “a dumb white bitch.” She creates tension in Áila’s relationship, encouraging Áila to caress her pregnant belly while hinting that Ália’s boyfriend might leave her since she’s not yet ready for children. Rosie is not an easy person to like. And yet we realize that she’s been dealt a bad hand, and, like Áila, we want to empathize with her. She’s in a very tough spot, and that puts us, as viewers, in the same difficult space.

When the film begins, a pregnant Rosie is leaving an abusive boyfriend.
Experimental Forest Films / Violator Films

Áila is Rosie’s opposite. Her comfortable apartment in a nice neighborhood is filled with rugs from Target, a record player and mid-century modern furniture — all the accoutrements of a tasteful Indigenous hipster. She appears flawless, even in moments of angst, and has a dog and a decent live-in boyfriend. Áila has the luxury of choice — the chance for a happy and stable life — while Rosie just has to make do with her lot. This stark contrast of environments, personalities and situations creates a true dramatic tension that lasts throughout the film.

We observe their relationship unfold in real time, a directing choice that makes the film move slowly, sometimes painfully so. While the pace forces viewers to pay attention to the smallest details — the random street where the two women meet, their apartments, a cab, the hospital rooms and bathrooms where the two sneak away from each other to breathe and fight off panic attacks — not a lot happens over the course of the afternoon, except that we slowly get to know the two women. The camera lingers over seemingly insignificant moments and follows the characters everywhere.

Moreover, the camera literally moves. Handheld camerawork is not a cinematographic choice that I always appreciate. While the constant movement creates a natural tension and more realistic, documentary-style scenes, some viewers, including this one, get queasy. When I watched Anne Hathaway in the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, the camerawork practically forced me to lie down sideways on a theater chair (gross) in order to get through the movie. It is difficult to enjoy a film when one is trying to avoid vomiting.

The film lasts an hour and 45 minutes, following Rosie and Áila’s relationship from the beginning to the end, minute-by-minute. That creates editing challenges: What do you leave in? Better yet, what do you cut out? The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open easily could have worked as a short film, but instead, the directors have decided to let the characters and scenes breathe. And that is the point: We catch a glimpse into the lives of two women in a real, significant moment of time. You either buy in or you don’t.

In The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, we realize an uncomfortable truth. On its surface, the film suggests that social media activism alone is not enough, and that the actual work one does is all that matters. Yet scratch a little deeper, and it seems that directors Máijá-Tailfeathers and Hepburn hint that, despite the best intentions, help may not exist for their protagonists. It’s a mature look at a situation with no easy answers. The film’s boldness comes from its choice not to give everyone a happy ending. There is no smiling group hug. Instead, this courageous entry in Indigenous cinema refuses to wrap up life neatly with a bow; we are shown, rather than told, just how things are in 2019.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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