Cinematic Memories: Filming Activism and Personal History


On Thursday, March 10th, the Aboriginal Student Centre at the University of Waterloo hosted an event in conjunction with the History Speakers’ Series. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, a filmmaker, writer, and actor from Vancouver, had a conversation with us about her films and the processes of turning personal history into a cinematic experience.

We screened Bihttoš (2014), A Red Girl’s Reasoning (2012), Colonial Gaze: Sami Artists’ Collective (2012),and Mavericks: Season 2, Ep. Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, blood reserve (2015).

This topic demands a bit of juggling between multiple ideas. On the one hand, we can look at how Maija’s films specifically challenge dominant narratives and widespread consciousness through her intervention in the creation of new images and histories. On the other hand, we can look at how, as an indigenous female filmmaker, she is engaging with personal history in a way that is deeply moving, and for this reason radical. We can see how these two ideas interplay with one another, but it also requires two hands to hold onto it.

Film as Creating Consciousness

In thinking about the significance of her work, larger questions began to dance around my head. I started asking: How do we depict the past, our past, and how does that affect our present? If we consider Pierra Nora’s concept of “lieux de memoire” as a theoretical framework within which to examine the conjoined themes of history and memory, we can see how Maija’s films fit into this canon of looking  to a new set of potential historical sources. In her case, memory does play a big role, but it’s not just her memories that are turned into images. More than that, the process of turning these memories and imaginings into film is inherently political and radical, as it actively fights against previously told and consumed narratives about indigenous women and activism. 

If we consider the power of the moving image, we can look at the history of films as depicting the past and examine how the images consumed participate greatly in generating a collective consciousness. Anton Kaes explores the genre of historical cinema, as compared to the historical novel, to determine how film more easily affects our consciousness.

Films – as complex fictional constructs – offer ambivalent perspectives and contradictory attitudes that resist simple explanations and call for multiple readings. Films dealing with history represent a dynamic and complex balance between two referents: one appealing to the historical knowledge or memory of the viewer and to a certain extent verifiable, the other taking liberties with historical facts for the sake of inventive storytelling. Historical films thus toy with temporal ambivalences, associations, and identifications and have a tendency to expunge historical distance. Precisely because they present the past as pure presence (there is no past tense in film), historical films seem effective in engaging the viewer more than, for example, the historical novel.
-Anton Kaes, “History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination,” 114

Maija Tailfeather’s films present new worlds and imagined pasts that reflect her lived experience. Through film, she is able to not only challenge the historical consciousness that is presented in historical film narratives, but also to create new, complex, and multi-dimensional characters within this history.

In 2012, Maija released A Red Girl’s Reasoning, a film that is political, critical, and galvanizing. Her protagonist is seamlessly swift, calculating, powerful, and an engagement with catharsis. This film is made for women, specifically, as our hero motorcycles around a city with a hit list, attaining revenge against men and legal systems for their violence against indigenous women. Her intentions behind this character comes from depictions of missing and murdered indigenous women as being relegated to victims without a voice. This image is a prevalent one; in attempts to generate mass support for this systemic problem, news media, films and literature have attempted to challenge widespread apathy by making indigenous women victims worth caring about. Kristen Gilchrist, in her article “‘Newsworthy’ Victims,” writes about news media and the trends in reporting that either ignore or downplay violence against indigenous women. Maija intention in this film is to re-write this image, and create a new character that destroys the prevalent stereotypes in the collective Canadian consciousness by being the opposite of a victim. She is entirely autonomous, dictating the progression of every scene, and attaining the revenge she seeks without obstacles.

Film and Personal Histories

In our sampling of her work, there exists a stark change in focus between some of her films. In her more recent work, beginning with Bihttoš in 2014, she took a noticeable turn inwards. When asked about this change, Maija said that she was challenged to engage in a personal topic by a group of fellow filmmakers in a workshop, and that without this direct incentive she’s not sure she would have approached it on her own. The journey this turn has taken her on, however, has been monumental and altering, and the resulting films are remarkable. This is not to say that her previous films were not personal; in many ways they were, but what changed was a decisive step towards looking at her past, where she came from and whom she came from.

Her more recent work in Bihttoš and Mavericks very much contrasts  A Red Girl’s Reasoning, as these films are introspective, self-analyzing, and invasive. They are films centred on her parents, with Bihttoš slowly creeping towards unraveling her father’s life, and Mavericks passionately arguing the significance of her mother’s work, both as a doctor and as an activist. Narrative documentary film produced specifically by an indigenous woman creates the potential for powerful new images, and new histories. In the canon of this genre of work, we can look to similar self-insertions into filming history and memory. Sylvia D. Hamilton, a Nova Scotian filmmaker whose work focuses on lived experiences of African Canadians on the East Coast, writes about the process of bringing the personal, or private, into the public:

This concept [“lieux de memoire”] offered a way for me to think about my work as bringing together the private (through oral storytelling and family histories) and the public (as found in archival documents). Moreover, the act of filming personal stories for public viewing transforms them from the private space to a very multi-layered, broad public space that is local, national, and international.

-Sylvia D. Hamilton, MACNUTT LECTURE: When and Where I Enter: History, Film, and Memory, Acadiensis, Vol. 41, No. 2 (SUMMER/AUTUMN-ÉTÉ/AUTOMNE 2012), pp. 3-16

Maija’s creation of images in Bihttoš plays with the power of different filmic mediums. In her reproduction of the fairy-tale of her parent’s first meeting, she uses paper-cut animation with a child voice-over to emphasize the story-like quality to this memory. As it was something she was told as a child, this recreation is displayed as it was processed through her own body. To depict her teenage years, she uses re-enactment with hired actors to play her mother and father. Overlaid on top of these images are photographs from her own albums. The combination, and interplay, between kept documents and recreated memory play with this idea of creating a new world. What items do we bring with us into imagined pasts and futures? 

The importance of recognizing not only her past, but her father’s, runs through the veins of this film. It is a reminder that, in creating new worlds and consciousness, the past plays a remarkably crucial role. In combining the private with the public, the past with the present, Maija’s films reminds us that the past not only comes with us, but is also a guide.







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