No Saviour Stories: Not Even Indigenous Ones
There has been a long history of problematic films, depicting white folks "saving" BIPOC peoples,:
Dances With Wolves
A Time To Kill
In all of these movies, a white character intersects with a marginalized group of people and or person and attempts to "empower" them. I've spoken in depths about how I don't believe empowerment is real, or healthy to depict because that relationship is built on a construct of colonial oppression. It functions on the idea that someone has to "give" you power, and I believe we are all born with the power we need, and we just need to remove systems of oppression to ignite self sovereign power. Systemic racism pivots on the concept that we have to be "helped" and this ideology is an imperialistic trap in an attempt to keep BIPOC's down.
Writing narratives that depict a bipoc person needing to be saved by a hero, is deeply problematic because it portrays us as powerless, lacking agency and affirms imperial control. Saviour films are inherently written for white people to assuage their guilt about the racialization of bipoc peoples. The impact is that we see ourselves as powerless and that's dangerous fiction.
But I see exactly why they are alluring to write, these films get celebrated by the white supremacist film community because it affirms their power, mitigates their responsibility in bipoc violence and gives them a safe temporary voyeuristic hour or so into the lives of marginalized peoples, while they munch on some popcorn and get to sosh meids about how they saw this film.
Fictional saviour films become an tool for the imperial hegemonic state to tell themselves, it's ok for me to do nothing because somewhere out there a Sandra Bullock is "saving" a black person so I don't have to. Or worse, it presents a challenging reality and makes people say, wow that shit is complex, I couldn't possibly participate in dismantling colonial power. In both cases, the marginalized peoples suffer and that I have a serious problem with because our communities don't need imperial state agents, voyeuring into our lives, we need accomplices meaningfully entering into our communities helping disseminate power.
Which brings me to why I'm writing this, there is a film out there, that is a saviour film that people have messaged me about, saying I find this story deeply problematic and it's winning white awards and nobody is addressing the harm it's doing to our Indigenous community.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is described on TIFF's website as " an audacious act of heroism and kindness, Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) chooses to console a young woman she finds barefoot and sobbing in the streets. She soon discovers that Rosie (Violet Nelson) has just escaped an assault by her boyfriend. Compelled to take action, Áila chooses to bring Rosie into her home and, over the course of the evening, the two women explore the after-effect of this traumatic event."
Ooof. This is a new spin on the saviour film. Aila an Indigenous woman becomes the "hero" for Rosie. *face palm.
There is way too much to unpack with this and so I just want to distill it down to 2 deeply problematic areas:
1. The fact this story is co-written by a white woman, Kathleen Hepburn and
2. The harm it does for our Indigenous youth.
All of the movies I listed above are written by white folks, well intentioned ones I'm sure, typing their hero films, thinking "oh boy, I'm changing the world for the good!" Sorry well intentioned white folks, not only are you not doing good, you're causing a lot more harm. You're taking up bipoc space and using bipoc resources for white led stories about communities you're not even a part of. You're utilizing imperial white state power to serve yourself. Stop taking up this space and stop writing narratives you have no business writing.
Having Hepburn co-write The Body Remembers, an Indigenous hero narrative, is a complex attack on Indigenous sovereignty because it appears as allyship but in reality, it's a white power move. This is a story about Indigenous peoples and we have a white person attempting to not just understand the racialized lives of Indigenous peoples but c0-authoring an Indigenous lived experience which is appropriative. It's a white person profiting and benefiting from a story they co-wrote about a culture that isn't theirs.
It's wrong. It's not okay and I don't hear anyone addressing this, which is why I felt compelled to write this post.
The fact that Tailfeathers and Hepburn didn't trouble this notion, gives an insight into the problematic process of how they wrote a story, that from a youth engagement perspective, positions Indigenous young people to be put in more dangerous situations.
For context, I have worked in the youth engagement field for over 10 years. I've worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, I've work for the Representative for Children and Youth as the first Youth Engagement Coordinator, I designed the Urban Native Youth Association's Leadership program, I've worked as the Youth Program Manager for the Cultch, and I've had the honour of hosting Canada's largest Indigenous Youth conference, Gathering Our Voices, twice. In these positions, I've had the opportunity to work with highly educated Youth workers, creating toolkits for youth in care to better navigate complex systems, I've travelled around B.C delivering workshops for youth in care so they know their rights under the child and family services act and I helped spearhead initiatives to increase Indigenous young peoples access to the arts in East Vancouver. I've studied best practices for youth guided by the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement and partnered with Universities to learn more about how to authentically engage with young people, with a specialization in supporting Indigenous peoples.
And I still would say, I am in no way an "expert" and acknowledge I haven't worked on the front line, full time in 3 years. But in my work experience in this field, I know a few things about ethically engaging with our young people.
I have gone back and forth about writing critically about this story and it was last night talking to another person who works with Indigenous young people, who said, I think because of where Indigenous art is, non-Indigenous people don't feel comfortable critically looking and Indigenous art pieces. I also don't think a lot of non-Indigenous art critics have the capacity to. I've put embargoes on non-Indigenous people speaking about my work because of how colonial oppressive the intersection is, but I always, always invite Indigenous peoples to speak about it. I'm speaking about this because of the potentially dangerous positioning it can do to our Indigenous young people, and I really didn't want to have to write it.
When this film came out and more Indigenous people saw it, because I intersect with storytelling and the Indigenous youth engagement field, a number of youth workers messaged me, communicating their discomfort about the way the Indigenous young person in this film is treated.
One of the fundamental frameworks for engaging with young people is ensuring that our intersections with them aren't causing them more harm than good. When I was working for RCY we spent significant time, researching and creating ethical strategies and processes, to ensure that when we were going into communities we were building capacities and not temporarily supporting them. I have turned down many youth engagement opportunities because organizations haven't done the research, they haven't done the good work to understand that when adult allies enter into their lives of young people, we have to be incredibly deliberate and conscious about the legacy of impact we have on them, the impact that goes way beyond our momentary presence.
Youth workers have many, many standards about best practices with engaging with young people. I remember working at UNYA which is an Indigenous Youth Centre in East Van, the onboarding process with their standards for how to ethically engage young people in and outside of the youth centre was incredibly comprehensive. Because a lot of us youth workers lived in the neighborhood, we shared best practices and strategies on how to protect young people and ourselves, if we ever encountered a youth in distress.
And Imma say this - bringing a youth into your home was top of the list for things to never ever do. It sets a dangerous message that young people should go into strangers homes when they are in distress. I don't care what race anyone is, or how "kind" they are, everyone should know that we should never take a young person into our private homes, ever and this is the main reason I'm writing this critique on this film, and why I think it's incredibly important to communicate again that WE NEVER TAKE YOUTH INTO OUR HOMES.
We also never judge them or intersect with them about their drug use, it's dangerous for the young person and the adult. Understanding how to intersect with young people who are using, takes a specialization because they might be drug dependent and telling them to " just stop" could put them into a situation that's harmful. Also, judging them is not the answer, that's just a privileged garbage response and a lazy ill informed plot point. What happens in the film is not what you should do in reality ever.
There are many services for young people that we should all be aware of and I find this film not only misses the opportunity to illuminate, champion and support these community services, this film depicts "Indigenous heroism" in a really fucking dangerous way. So I'm going to take some time to talk about services and legalities, we should all know about when we encounter a young Indigenous person in crisis.
1, Duty to report: "If you think a child or youth under 19 years of age is being abused or neglected, you have the legal duty to report your concern to a child welfare worker. Phone 1 800 663-9122 at any time of the day or night." This means all of us, there are legal responsibilities we have to ensure the safety of our young people, and that doesn't involve taking them into our personal spaces, ever.
2. CART Vancouver - The Child and Adolescent Response Team. The CART program provides a community response to mental health related crises involving school aged children and youth up to the age of 18 living in Vancouver who are experiencing urgent psychiatric or emotional distress. The CART Program offers:
Urgent assessment and consultation
Clinical intervention and short term counseling/support
Community resource co-ordination
Follow-up from hospital to community resources when needed
Psychiatric consultation when appropriate.
CART office: 604.874.2300 or 604.874.7307. The CART program offers referrals from Monday-Friday, 8:30am until 5:30pm (excluding statutory holidays).
3. UNYA - The Urban Native Youth Association. "Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) was formed in 1988 to address concerns facing Indigenous youth, at a time when growing numbers of young people began leaving reserves for the city. Thirty years later, young people continue to arrive in Vancouver with few job skills, minimal training or education, and little or no knowledge of where to go for help. UNYA is meeting these needs by providing a wide range of services, resources, and opportunities that support Vancouver’s Indigenous youth to excel. Today, UNYA delivers 20+ programs, with 175+ volunteers, 100 staff, and more than 300 community partners."
UNYA was like 2 blocks from where the story takes place, here is a link to their calendar. They have programs and resources for Indigenous young people up to the age of 30 and they also have safe houses designed for Indigenous youth.
If you're ever unsure, head to UNYA their staff is incredible.
4. The Aboriginal Mother Centre Society. "addresses the needs of Aboriginal women. Located in the east end of Vancouver, in a culturally sensitive environment." This organization was I think, one block from where the inciting incident of this film took place.
So, as you can see there are many specialized organizations that could've appropriately and safely taken care of Rosie, literally in the neighborhood and the film missed this opportunity. It could've dived into the complexity of navigating child and youth welfare systems - which is actually a film we need to see.
Sidebar did you know they call aging out of care "the cliff" because that transition is extremely dangerous to navigate (also the Province of BC needs to change the age of transitioning out to 24 and not 18). This film decided to center a more privileged "hero" Indigenous character that judges and positions the young person to be in more danger, which is not what anyone needs to fucking see, or for that matter celebrate.
I don't even want to get into the areas of lateral positional Indigenous violence, the lack of agency given to Rosie, the trauma porn narrative aspects because they are all less important than how this film depicts the way we safely support our Indigenous young people.
Our young people are some of the most resilient people I've ever had the privilege of bearing witness to. They don't need a fucking hero, barf. They need our ongoing meaningful support and our people deserve that movie, the youth and community workers in East Van deserve that movie and our young Indigenous people deserve to be depicted as the powerful beings they are.
White folks and imperialists are celebrating this film because it affirms their lack of support for bipocs, whether they are conscious of it or not. This film holds up the colonial states status quo and supports imperial state neglect because this saviour film has an Indigenous hero. It furthers state propaganda that Indigenous peoples need to be saved and we don't.
Save yourself from watching this film and go spend some time learning about services in the East Van neighborhood where this film took place. Spend time learning about how we can meaningfully and ethically engage Indigenous young people. Also, donate to them, I hear this film is winning a number of monetary awards, Hepburn you make any donations from your profiting?
Here is a link to how to donate to UNYA.
I don't have much more to say about this story, what I want to say to young Indigenous peoples is that I deeply love you, never go into a strangers home, asking for support is courageous and refuse "heros."
To Indigenous writers, can we please stop writing trauma informed narratives for white people. Don't fall into that colonial trap, I get it, it's lucrative but remind your body that our people need stories centered around joy, with laughter and plots pivoting around Indigenous love.
With deep respect for the over 5,000 Indigenous youth in care in B.C and to those powerful young people navigating the complex child and welfare service systems,
p.s I'm diving deep into my own writing so please don't come at me with your colonial rationale. I have no desire to do the labour to teach you beyond this post. I've thought about this deeply, my lived experience knows the way this film portrays youth engagement is dangerous. Full stop.