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Follow filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as she creates an intimate portrait of her community and the impacts of the substance use and overdose epidemic.National Film Board of Canada

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Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Directed by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Classification N/A; 125 minutes

Opens at Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre Nov. 5, with select engagements continuing across the country through Nov. 24 (

Critic’s Pick

Many of the subjects you come to care about in writer/director Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’s documentary Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy are people whom you might once have crossed the street to avoid: a teenage girl trying to keep some distance from her boyfriend’s fentanyl use; young mothers battling addiction; a couple who have bounced into and out of abstinence programs since the 1970s.

And that’s exactly Tailfeathers’s point. She has an urgent story to tell about the horrific rise – in both number and severity – of opioid overdoses in her community, the Kainai Blood Reserve in Alberta, as well as the cultural/historical/economic reasons behind it and the innovative ways that people on the front lines are trying to break the pattern.

She puts on camera a wide array of indigenous social workers, doctors, nurses, recovery coaches and EMTs. But the characters she asks us to lean into the most are those living with substance abuse and addiction disorders. That’s where the Kimmapiiyipitssini (GEE-maa-bee-bit-sin) – a Blackfoot word meaning “giving kindness to each other” – comes in.

As a filmmaker, Tailfeathers doesn’t pretend to be an objective observer. She’s interested in community-based, trauma-informed storytelling. She allows her subjects to be in control. The result is scenes of extraordinary honesty and openness from people whose voices we rarely hear, but cry out to be listened to.

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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