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#HotDocs21 Review: Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

May 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers offers an in-depth look at harm reduction practices in her absorbing and moving documentary Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, taking us onto the Kainai First Nation in Alberta, where fentanyl use and overdose deaths have exploded over the past few years.

Since 2014, when fentanyl flooded the illegal drug market, addiction rates have skyrocketed to some of the highest in Canada, with this crisis touching everyone in the community in one way or another. The director follows a variety of subjects on the Blackfoot reserve, including her own mother, Dr. Esther Tilfeathers, who is working on the frontlines to provide compassionate treatment to drug addicts. We candidly hear from the users themselves, as well as the EMTs, police officers and community patrollers who must carry naloxone shots at all times to treat overdoses.

Shot over several years, and unfolding in a vérité style, a big part of Tailfeathers’ mission with this film is trying to change the way people think about addiction treatment to put the focus on harm reduction where traditional abstinence-based programs aren’t feasible for the individual. She looks at how these practises are used in Vancouver, taking us into the safe-injection sites that provide a model for what they are trying to establish on the reserve, including alcohol exchange programs to prevent addicts from drinking solvents and hand sanitizers that cause internal bleeding.

But, with these programs at the mercy of government funding and facing intense public pushback, a lot of the work that has to be done involves removing the stigma around these treatments. The doctors are providing suboxone, a drug that can help people ween off of opioids as it allows individuals to function without the side effects of with-drawl and helps reduce their reliance on other substances. But this treatment is controversial in itself, with some viewing it as replacing one addiction with another.

The director and her mother also explore how generations of trauma have helped fuel this crisis, drawing direct lines back to residential schools and to the beginning of Canada’s history under John A. MacDonald. The film is quite heavy, especially at just over two hours long, but it’s absorbing to watch the work that is being done to help this community ravaged by addiction. The cumulative power of these stories really add up, and what emerges is a comprehensive and emotionally gripping look at this crisis that does an excellent job of putting a human face on it.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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