The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

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.

Little Miss Westie

An absolutely wonderful film that takes you inside the home of the McCarthy family. A warm, funny, heartfelt documentary about parents raising a teenage boy and little girl, in a slice-of-life sort of way. The fact both of the kids are trans adds an additional level of challenge in this Trump era, but it is constantly undercut by the ordinariness of their lives.

The loose thread which is pulled through the narrative is the decision for the little girl, Ren, to compete in the Little Miss Westie competition, a kids’ pageant. Ren’s older brother Luca competed in the pageant when he was living as female, and he has a lot to say about it. You’d think that he might have found the experience a difficult one, as he had to get up and perform dances in dresses on stage, but he looks back on the experience fondly, that expressing his talents had really helped his self-esteem. And now he is a total stage brother, coaching Ren to win the crown.

The whole thing is hilarious, as Ren is just her little weird self, and insists on wearing her Pusheen onesie in the dress-up round.

Also – and I can’t say this enough – I love Ren. Ren is a legend and I want to be Ren. She basically just wanders around dreamily in a long swishy skirt and cat ears, looking at pictures of llamas on her iPad. I heart her so much.

The constant anxiety of whether Ren will be accepted as female in the competition hangs in the background, but the unconditional love and support from her family means more anxiety seems to go into whether she will ever learn to pose or twirl well. Really just the loveliest warm hug of a film.

If you like this

In Search

An incredibly moving and intimate documentary about women who have survived FGM.

It is a film that allows women to speak about their experiences in their totality. The audience is not given the faces of black women flashed up in some statistics piece reporting on their perpetual victimhood. They are whole people, with whole lives, joys and challenges outside what was done to them. But all them want to speak out about their experience, to stop it happening to other girls, to break the taboo for other survivors, and just have their trauma acknowledged.

That is what is so pervasive and damaging across all their experiences – silence. The physical act of violence was bad enough, but there is a silence that is expected of survivors, that they never speak to other women, or warn other girls of the pain, the complications, the real mortal danger it puts you in. Never speak about the effect it has on periods, on sex, on childbirth. Like is so often the case, violence against women must not only be borne, but borne in silence, without complaint.

But as grim as the subject is, this film is a film of hope. And not in an abstract way, like the notion of hope. But real tangible progress that is being made, both in illegalising the practice, in normalising resistance to it among women, about breaking the taboo of talking about it, and in the advancements in reconstruction surgery which is literally giving women back what was taken from them. This film is both a product of, part of, and proponent of that change.

The hero of this piece is Mami, the documentary filmmaker herself, who makes the incredibly brave and intimate decision to include herself and her own experience at the centre of the narrative. This was not a decision she made lightly, as she said in the Q&A afterwards. The film was intended to be her interviewing other women about their experiences, and over the course of the interviews, their conversations brought up and touched on so many things she was dealing with. And she thought, “How can I ask these women to come here and talk about such intimate things, when I am not willing to talk about these things myself?”

So the film also becomes a memoir of recovery, as she goes back home to Kenya to talk to her mother about her circumcision, a topic which has never been discussed between them in 20 years.

And just a word about her mother – I bloody love her mother. Her mother adores her. Her mother would do anything for her. Her mother exudes love for her. She is not the image many cast the mothers of FGM survivors (in that way all blame for patriarchal violence somehow has to turned back into a woman’s fault), the idea of some unfeeling, unloving, brutally strict mother who we all look at askance asking, “How could you?!” She was a woman who loved her daughter fiercely, who came up against the limits of what she could protect her from.

Her mother has given her daughter the best of everything she could, has sent her to school, university, to study abroad in Germany. She is immensely proud of her, and has her graduation photo on the wall of her home, displayed in pride of place. Their relationship is one of such evidenced love, that is becomes unthinkable that they have never spoken about something so important in both their lives for 20 years. And in showing the impossibility of such a conversation even in the loving heart of their relationship, the power of the taboo is communicated to the audience in a very real way. These experiences around FGM may never have been yours as a viewer, but watching Mami struggle to speak to her mother, you feel the words being choked in your own throat, you understand how unsayable it all seems.

And for me, their mother-daughter relationship is the heart of the film. As the filmmaker travels the world, talking to different women about their experiences, as she speaks to doctors about advancements in reconstruction surgery – always waiting in the background is the conversation she is leaving undone with her mother.

One of my fears with a film on FGM is an anxiety about how graphic any descriptions of the actual physical procedure might get. Because the film is of FGM survivors telling their own stories, they are in control of how much they divulge, and because it is made by an FGM survivor, no attempt is made to dwell upon lurid detail instead of survivor empowerment. When survivors describe their experience, much of the focus is not on the physicality of it, but of the sense of betrayal, the anger, the trauma, of being held down and not allowed to escape when they realised exactly what was happening to them, of the silence afterwards holding them down and feeling inescapable.

But every now and then, someone will say a word that you don’t want to hear, like remembering the sound of scissors, and your blood will run cold. Because all the survivors describe their stories so matter-of fact, and because there is story heaped upon story, you begin to think you have become acclimatised. And then halfway through the film, Mami sits down with the German lassie who is helping her make the film, and she shows Mami her pussy. “Oh!” Mami exclaims, “It’s like a rose! You have so many petals!” and then in a voice that breaks your heart, she says, “Mine doesn’t have any petals”. And I burst into tears.

It’s hard in a film to balance relaying what a terrible loss and violation this was and continues to be for so many women, with empowering survivors with a narrative where they are not defined or encompassed by the violence done to them, but this film does so, communicating experiences you may not have had yourself effectively and powerfully, in a way that shows women speaking up is always a revolutionary act, and showing when it happens on mass, it can bring down centuries-old violent and sexist tradition, it can free and save girls from a future of similar violence. A deeply moving film.