I really wanted to see this film at the Femspectives festival in February, but I missed it because I felt like shite. They actually intended to having other screenings of it later on, but those have now also been cancelled due to the coronavirus. So fuck it, I’m watching it on Netflix with Femspectives at Home, and including it here.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a story about two indigenous Canadian women from very different backgrounds, who collide when one helps rescue the other from a domestic abuse attack. It is shot in a oner and in real time. This gives it an immediacy and an intimacy that is very moving. It also gives it time and space for the drama to come from the quiet moments in the aftermath, rather than focus on the event. We never directly see the attack, all the drama is from watching the character absorb everything around them, process it, and wait for them to make a decision.
You know what it reminds me of, weirdly? It reminds me of the books of Willa Cather. Her writing is very plain and practical, but by the end you look back and see this heartbreakingly beautiful novel. Just like Willa Cather’s writing is absent of literary flourishes, I feel like there are very few flashy tactics and tricks in the way this film is shot, the story is just put in front of you, and it is the nakedness and ordinariness that punctures your heart.
I love Rosie, the young, broke, pregnant woman who is found barefoot in the street after escaping her boyfriend’s attack. She spits in the eye of the viewer and says to Aila, who comes to her rescue, you think you know me. You think you can take one look at me and know everything about me. Well, fuck you.
Aila is just someone with her own life and own problems, who just wants to help. Yet as a middle-class, light-skinned, thin, femme woman, who is the picture postcard of all the power and respect that Rosie doesn’t have, there is a constant bristle of conflict between them. Aila is the poster child for successful indigenous people. Not overweight, impoverished, and trailing a set of social problems a mile wide. And yet, although this is how Rosie sees her, we know Aila’s life is not perfect, that she is medicated for anxiety, and we have no idea what she herself might have gone through in the past.
Kinda like what I was saying about Willa Cather’s novels, which focuses on day-to-day practicalities, yet contains all of life in there, this film is so dense with substance. Through all these practical discussions about getting Rosie to a safe house for the night, all these chit-chats in taxi cabs, you see so much about class, colourism, the forging and breaking and reforging of solidarity in the face of multiple intersectional oppressions. And agency. Just because Rosie is being found in this moment needing help, doesn’t mean that defines who she is. She is keenly aware of how she is defined in the gaze of others, and bucks at it constantly.
And you don’t need to know the history here to feel it. For generations, indigenous kids have been taken off their parents to be stripped of their culture in Native schools, something which happened in Canada but has also been repeated around the world. Think of movies like Rabbit Proof Fence and Song Without A Name, where indigenous children are abducted and it is always assumed by those in power that they will be better off in environments of white ‘civilisation’. You don’t need to be familiar with the details to feel that weight of distrust that is a permanent factor in Rosie’s decision-making.
Also, as a working class person, it is immediately identifiable that she fears her child will be taken by the social work system. The politics of class and gender push mothers into poverty, then blame them as bad mothers for being there.
For Rosie, she has to balance the devil she knows, against the risks of the unknown in a society which is hostile to her survival, and always has been. While we are all routing for her to leave her abusive partner, one of this film’s achievements is to make clear how rational a choice it might be to not do that.
A great movie. An hour and 45 minute window in someone’s life that manages to somehow capture so much complexity with seemingly so little.