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Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, and other healthcare workers visit Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to learn more about harm reduction practices. Still from 'Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy,' by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers.

ReFrame: An Antidote to Nihilism

Written by
Nicky Taylor
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February 14, 2022
ReFrame: An Antidote to Nihilism
Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, and other healthcare workers visit Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to learn more about harm reduction practices. Still from 'Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy,' by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers.

Every winter, ReFrame Film Festival returns to Nogojiwanong-Peterborough to offer its residents some kind of reprieve from winter dread, in the form of a curated line-up of films that bring the most pressing stories right to our living rooms. For the past two years (a rare pandemic silver-lining) ReFrame’s offerings have been expanded for the rest of the country to enjoy. It is also the time of year where I think seriously about filmmaking for about a month, before retiring to more familiar modes of storytelling. 

Lately, the work of Joan Didion has been circulating its way through the topics of conversation interspersed throughout my workday. Brazil and I have been reading Didion, perhaps spurred by her death, or the thought that we might absorb some of her incisiveness through osmosis alone. Brazil was telling me about an essay I hadn’t yet read – On Keeping a Notebook. She explained to me that it’s about the ‘anxious kleptomania that writers have about the world.’ I knew what she meant as soon as she’d said it, because I too, am plagued by the compulsion to write everything down, often without knowing exactly why it must be kept. 

To be a writer, or in a wider sense, a storyteller, is to discern what of the world is worth keeping – what is worth remembering, rearticulating, retelling. Didion does well to remind us that this discerning often happens much later, that writers rarely know exactly what is worth keeping or why, but that taking notes is “useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

And while I have never made a film, I have come to see filmmaking as an extension of this idea – that perhaps the idea for a film could be borne on a napkin in a diner, or in conversation with a stranger – but that any documentary film represents a refinement of the impulse to keep or collect stories. That, to make a film, you must know what the subject offers the viewer, or at least believe so vehemently in the significance of the subject that you know the story, once told,  can change how we engage with, and interpret the world around us. 

Sometimes, it is easy to believe in stories, and the need to tell them arrives with urgency. This was the case for Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, the filmmaker behind Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy – a film that chronicles the opioid crisis in Kainai First Nation, and how community leaders are bringing harm reduction principles to the reserve. 

In an interview with Seventh Row, Tailfeathers explains that being the daughter of one of the Reservation's few medical doctors, offered an entry point to the story: “I was hearing from her about what [my mother] was witnessing on the front lines, and I was also witnessing the immense grief that was being felt throughout the community.” 

The film follows various members of Kainai First Nation who have been affected by the opioid crisis, or addiction in some way or another: a mother trying to winnow down her dosage of suboxone; a young man who decides to start taking it in the midst of opioid withdrawal; an unhoused couple whose lack of access to safe alcohol supply leaves them drinking solvents. The film avoids sensationalizing a crisis that media has often made a spectacle of, and instead offers a non-extractive alternative, a sequence of stories grounded in the humanity of those telling them. And while it is a story about colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and addiction, it is very much about the resilience of a community that has long been made to fend for itself. 

Kímmapiiyipitssini begins with healthcare workers from Kainai FN, including Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, visiting Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where harm reduction practices have long been saving lives. They speak with healthcare workers from Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit on the cutting edge of harm reduction and healthcare in this neighbourhood known for its high rates of drug poisonings. 

The healthcare workers are in pursuit of an alternative to abstinence-based approaches to addiction, which have long dominated treatment in Kainai First Nation. In Kímmapiiyipitssini, we come to see how harm reduction is often met with hostility – the dismissal of suboxone as ‘just another drug,’ or the hesitance on behalf of the state, to support and fund lifesaving harm reduction programs. Opioids, and the overdoses they bring with them, have been making their way through this community – one that has already been stifled by addiction – the reverberations of centuries of colonial violence. 

In many ways, the film is also a meditation on how the opioid crisis has affected the filmmaker’s own family. As Tailfeathers tells Seventh-Row, “a year into making the film, my cousin passed away from an overdose.”  

“Our family is really close-knit, and it was a devastating loss for us. It changed everything for our family. In that grief, the issue in the film became so much more immediate for me as the filmmaker… I felt like I needed to do something productive with that grief. I couldn’t just let it sit there. So it became part of the story and also part of my explanation, as a filmmaker and as a community member, as to why I’m such a strong supporter of harm reduction. It could have saved my cousin’s life. That’s undeniable.” 

In one scene, the filmmaker rides shotgun with a police officer who is searching for a woman who has survived an overdose, but fled out of fear of the authorities before she could access further medical care. The police officer, also Indigenous, finds himself in the middle of a particularly perilous 48 hours in Kainai, with a batch of carfentanyl causing 22 overdoses in just two days. He speculates on the origins of the crisis, tethering it to the beginnings of colonization. 

The subjects of the film are met with barriers at every turn whether it is accessing treatment, or finding stable housing that will allow them agency over their own lives. Kímmapiiyipitssini lays bare the gaps in our understanding of addiction, and our approach to treating it, all the while highlighting the work that is being done by people like Dr. Tailfeathers to prevent drug poisonings, and bring prosperity back to the people of Kainai First Nation. 

Still from 'Writing With Fire.' Two Khabar Lahariya journalists review video footage on a smartphone.

Writing With Fire

In India, Dalit women bear the greatest brutality of the caste system, and like the members of Kainai First Nation, are met everywhere with barriers – to work, to housing, to travel safely, to social mobility, etc. Journalists in India are typically upper-caste men. Writing with Fire is a film by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh about a group of Dalit women who started the country’s only newspaper run by women, in Uttar Pradesh, a state where violence against women is especially rampant. To me, it is a film about how the pen and the sword are often best used side by side. 

When Khabar Lahariya was founded in 2002, no one thought it would succeed. To most, the idea of Dalit women journalists was unthinkable, but twenty years later, their YouTube page has over half a million subscribers. The chronic underestimation and undervaluing of the journalism these women do almost operates as a motif throughout the film – coming at them from all sides: their husbands, their fathers, their sources, the police, the government. 

In one scene we watch a reporter emasculate her way into an interview for a story about illegal mining operations run by organized crime groups in the region. Her source tells her, You should speak within your limits, don’t overdo it. She responds, Instead of patronizing me, why don’t you give me an interview? Eventually he acquiesces.  

Later in the film, surrounded by her male counterparts, another Khabar Lahariya journalist interviews a police officer, asking firm, assertive questions. The men in the room compliment the cop, asking him about “all the good work he’s doing.” Outside the police station, one of the male journalists approaches with unsolicited advice, telling her to praise the police when she interviews them. “There is enough praise coming from the rest of you,” she tells him. Constantly, these women are spoken down to, and invariably, they demonstrate grit and grace in the face of it. 

When Meera, a Senior Reporter at Khabar Lahariya first started working as a journalist, she says that ‘obviously everyone objected.’ Traditional gender roles dictate that Meera’s foremost role in her family is to run the household. She completed three degrees, including a Masters in political science, while working and raising a family. 

Later, the father of another journalist points to a paradox: “Everyone wants to marry an educated girl, but doesn’t want her working after. So why desire an educated girl?” He is holding out for a dowry he can afford, and a family that will allow his daughter, Suneeta, to continue working. 

In one instance, Khabar Lahariya’s journalism triggers an investigation into an instance of sexual assault, which subsequently leads to an arrest and prosecution. In another, their work leads to the return of an irrigation system that farmers had relied on; in another, it brings electricity to a neglected neighbourhood – healthcare to another. Their work embodies that idea central to storytelling – that it can translate into material change. 

The film captures a period in Khabar Lahariya’s development when they’re transitioning to digital mediums to amplify their work, which poses a challenge to members of the team who have not used a smartphone before. Their lack of experience however, is met gently, and with patience by senior members of the team who can impart the digital skills required to do this work. Throughout the film, we bear witness to the sororal camaraderie at the heart of Khabar Lahariya. There is a deep feminist current that makes their work possible. As Meera says, “When Dalit women succeed, we can redefine what it means to be powerful.”

Khabar Lahariya brings women's issues to the foreground of a political theatre that cares little for their standing in society, as demonstrated by the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate who fails to take seriously their concerns about sexual violence in the region. He asks Meera, “Are you a journalist or a detective?” before requesting that she send him the footage before publishing it. 

The entirety of the film takes place against the backdrop of the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement in India, crystallized in President Modhi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party forming government for the last 8 years. This tide of religious fundamentalism sweeping across the country threatens the hard-fought victories of the women's movement in India, and this is not lost on the women of Khabar Lahariya. They know that doing critical political journalism in Modhi’s India, especially as Dalit women, is a perilous political project. Since Modhi took power in 2014, over 40 journalists have been killed in India, making it one of the most deadly countries to practice journalism. 

And yet, the women of Khabar Lahariya never waver in their pursuit to, as Meera puts it, “hold a mirror to society.” 

Official poster for 'The Cost of Freedom.' Artwork by Daniela Leal.

The Cost of Freedom

This is the project of journalists everywhere, and everywhere this project is threatened, democracy suffers. No one knows this better than Luis Horacio Nájera Castillo, Arzu Yildiz, and Abdulrahman Matar – all of whom have had to flee their home countries for doing critical political journalism under authoritarian governments. Their stories are told in The Cost of Freedom, a documentary by local filmmaker James Cullingham, that brings the issue of journalistic freedom right to our doorstep. 

Each of these journalists came to Canada as a refugee – Castillo from Mexico, Yildiz from Turkey, Matar from Syria – and Cullingham grounds the film in the Canadian context, pointing to the difficulties they’ve faced in finding jobs here. From the outset of the film, Cullingham asks: “How is it that political journalists of their calibre have no place in Canadian journalism?” A question that only becomes more damning as we learn about their contributions to journalism, and the wider political project we call ‘democracy.’ 

Luis Horacio Nájera Castillo misses two things about Mexico: the sunsets, and his job. Back home, he wrote about the drug wars, detailing the violence of the cartels, and exposing a corrupt political system that allowed them to operate unhindered. In Mexico, crimes against journalists often go uninvestigated and unpunished, and because of this impunity, violence against journalists is rampant. Castillo says he has known more than 14 journalists who have been subject to violence for their work. When the cartel started using intimidation tactics against him and his family, he knew he had to flee Mexico to protect them. 

Since coming to Canada over a decade ago, full-time employment in the field of journalism has evaded him: “I will never be a journalist here. I have op-eds published in the foremost important newspapers in Canada, and I have interviews – and I have this and that… But that’s it. I’m still an outsider.” 

Arzu Yildiz is described in the film as having been ‘the most prominent legal investigative journalist in Turkey.’ She published critical work about governmental corruption, the illegal gun trade, and the Turkish Intelligence Agency. After Turkey’s attempted coup in 2016, the police began targeting anyone who had been vocal in their opposition to President Erdoğan, which meant that Arzu Yildiz would be accused of publishing propaganda, leaving her no choice but to flee Turkey to maintain her freedom, and her safety. 

In doing so, she would have to leave her two young daughters with her parents, before going to stay in a refugee camp for five months. Eventually she would arrive in America, then Canada, and begin the process of bringing her children to stay with her. She knew no English, and describes these first few months as unbearably lonely, likening the experience of a refugee to having to destroy one’s former self. She, too, has been unable to find full time, long term employment as a journalist in Canada despite her prolific career in Turkey. 

Abdulrahman Matar has been jailed five times for his political and cultural opinions. He was subjected to physical and psychological torture during these stints in prison, and experiences PTSD as a result. After the Arab Spring in Syria, journalism was decimated, and like India, Mexico, and Turkey, the political climate was hostile, violent even, to journalists. Matar asks, “How can an intellectual remain silent in a society in which all rights and freedoms are violated?” 

Matar arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee in January 2015. He remembers that it was snowing. He currently works night shifts in a factory, and maintains his writing practice outside of those hours. He recently published a novel based on his experiences in prison. Like Yildiz and Castillo, he hopes he will one day be able to find full time employment in the journalism industry in Canada. 

Like the harm reduction workers in Kainai First Nation, and the journalists of Khabar Lahariya, Castillo, Yildiz, and Matar, face a litany of barriers between them and the pivotal work they were seemingly born to do. I am haunted by three parallel images in the film; Luis cleaning the newspaper aisle of the library in his job as a custodian; Arzu listening to CBC radio break a Trudeau scandal while she delivers food for UberEats; Abdulrahman leaving his factory job in the morning light – saying he hopes it will give him something to write a novel about. These images underscore the question that Cullingham asks from the outset of the film, and offer a painful reminder of what we have to lose when voices like Castilo’s, Yildiz’s, and Matar’s are left out of public discourse. The film forebodes, threats to journalism are threats to us all, and a call for global solidarity with journalists rings in the ears of viewers. 

Maia Levy in 'The Viewing Booth.'

The Viewing Booth

So far, each of these films have been underpinned by the belief that stories are powerful, that they can change the world, or at least some small part of it. This idea is simple, cliché even, but it strikes me as an axiom of journalism, and an axiom of documentary filmmaking. The final film I’ll mention, has haunted me in no small way since I watched it, precisely because it interrogates this axiom and asks storytellers to question the unquestionable – what if stories, images, information… what if it can’t change someone’s mind? 

The Viewing Booth, a film by Israeli documentarian Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, ‘explores a space ostensibly off-limits to cinema — the internal experience of a viewer.’ The film features a young Jewish American woman, Maia Levy, watching footage of violence in the West Bank, and verbalizing her reactions in real time. There are 20 videos biased towards an Israeli point of view, and there are 20 from B’Tselem, a media group that documents human rights abuses in Occupied Palestine. The film is essentially one long conversation between Alexandrowicz and Levy, a dialogue that teases out truths about film and storytelling. 

Levy is a critical audience of one. The videos that document Israeli human rights abuses transgress deeply-held beliefs she has about the place her parents call home. She spends much of the film interrogating the veracity of the videos, looking for clues that might elucidate the biases of the person behind the camera. As she wrestles with ideology and evidence, Levy is vulnerable about her confusion, admitting that sometimes the B’Tselem videos ‘mess with her head,’ despite her decidedly pro-Israel stance. 

Several times we watch her vacillate from one perspective to another. She watches a video of IDF soldiers rousing a family in the middle of the night, waking sleeping children to photograph them, and at first she empathizes with the family, tries to imagine it being her home. In the next breath, she accuses the mother of the household of lying to the IDF. Then, she’s sad for them again. Then, she accuses the father of filming his children crying for political gain. 

She often claims the anti-Israel videos are staged, and invents some missing context that might justify the actions of the IDF: maybe the family was hiding a bomb, or they must be lying, [Palestinians] lie a lot. At times, she verges on treating the footage like fiction, claiming that it’s so manipulated that it can’t be taken seriously, and arguing that B’Tselem employs cinematic devices for their political agenda. 

At one point Levy watches a video of Israeli children throwing rocks at a Palestinian home, taunting the people who live there, while IDF soldiers look on without intervening. At first she assumes the children are Palestinian, because ‘I don’t think Israelis would do this.’ After she learns that the children are indeed Israeli, she admits that their behaviour is ‘not okay’ before launching into speculation over whether the Palestinian family could have provoked this: You’re only seeing what they want you to see.

In many ways, Levy’s reactions are unsurprising. She was raised to view Israel in a certain light, and this understanding of Israel is tethered to beliefs she has about herself, her family, and her culture. She is also born of a generation steeped in the idea that we ought not believe everything we see on TV…  but what happens if what you’re watching is real?

The filmmaker probes, “A lot of people don’t watch B’Tselem – but you do – why?” 

Levy responds, “I think people don’t watch them because they’re scared they’ll change their mind about it… If you accept reality, these things don’t make or break your viewpoints.” 

As we watch Levy grapple with fact and fiction, we simultaneously witness Alexandrowicz grapple with a burgeoning nihilism. He believes, as most filmmakers do, in the power of the image to transform paradigms, that watching these videos transforms the viewer into a witness to the Occupation. 

Over six months after their initial meeting, Alexandrowicz invites Levy back for another viewing session, but this time she watches the footage from the first session, that is, she watches herself watching. Again, she responds in real time. 

This time, Alexandrowicz asks her to interrogate her initial responses, and together, they realize a pattern: when the footage subverts her beliefs about Israel, she begins to have an emotional response, casts doubt, and ultimately dismisses the counterview as fiction. Levy admits, “I’m looking for something to support what I think – it’s usually what we do.” 

Alexandrowicz confesses that as an Israeli documentarian against the occupation, Maia Levy is his ideal subject for The Viewing Booth. Levy’s responses, and her responses to her responses, cause Alexandrowicz to “ask some serious questions about the whole possibility of communicating these things [through film].” 

Maia admits that what she is hostile to is the lens, the knowledge that the filmmaker manipulates the image: “You’re totally in the hands of whoever is filming this.” Alexandrowicz reminds her that the viewer also has control – to choose what they want to see, to filter the image through their own ideology. 

Somewhere in this tug of war between storyteller and audience, I think of something that Joan Didion once told an interviewer – that “[writing is] hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way.”

In this sense, we arrive at the ugly underbelly of the aforementioned axiom, that perhaps underneath the idea that stories have power over us, is the idea that this power is not uncomplicated – that filmmaker and audience are at odds, always mediating entire worldviews, paradigms, idiosyncrasies, etc. 

It might be easy to see this film through a cynical lens, to think that it is merely about the impermeability of ideology, but I think it offers us something much more valuable – the opportunity to rethink and perhaps renegotiate the unspoken contract between storyteller and audience. The Viewing Booth reminds us of our obligations, as storytellers and as audiences: to tell stories with nuance, to be accountable to the truth, and to approach a story with openness to the possibility of being wrong about it.  

In On Keeping a Notebook, Didion posits that those who keep notebooks (writers, storytellers, filmmakers) are “are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” – and while this may be true, I think in equal measure, there exists some intuition about what can be gained in this fragment-collecting – that we might be able to heal our communities, or speak truth to power, and that perhaps note-taking, or story-telling, offers an antidote to nihilism, an opportunity to infuse our world with meaning.

Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
Severn Court (October-August)
Theatre Trent 2023/24
Arthur News School of Fish
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Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
Severn Court (October-August)
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Arthur News School of Fish

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