“… I wanted my mom to tell me that she loved me, so badly. And it was such a huge pain, it was like a little child’s pain – like either tell me she loved me or touch me.”
Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in) is an award-winning filmmaker whose works requires a level of courage and community-gift-giving that few filmmakers achieve. Her latest film My Legacy is a deeply personal documentary which follows her journey as she attempts to heal her own relationship with her mother. Taking an art-house and direct cinema approach, the film weaves a brutally truthful mix of art, music, and storytelling that exposes the intergenerational impacts of the residential school on our most intimate relationships. Legacy peels and begins to mend deep wounds that many Indigenous Seventh Generation thirty-something’s (and their parents) can relate to: Big issues around trust, intimacy, love.
Earlier this month legacyinteractive.ca launched as an interactive network and resource for people exploring similar issues who want to share legacies of cultural strength as a way to heal, move forward, and reclaim our true legacies: the knowledge and ways grounded in our cultural traditions.
My Legacy first aired in the Tsilhqot’in language on APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network), and will air again at 7pmEST on February 6th, 2014 in English. MUSKRAT Magazine sat down with Helen for an intimate discussion on her own personal journey of healing through the making of her film.
MM: Your documentary My Legacy takes a critical approach to the legacy of residential schools, focusing on the impact on an individual’s ability to trust, make connections and build relationships. In fact, at first it seems as though your documentary is going to be a story about the search for love. Can you talk about what your process was for framing the subject matter of this film in this way, that is, the search for love?
HHB: The truth is, when I first wrote Legacy, which was about 6 years ago, it was initially my process of wanting to become a mother and have a child. I was really scared that I was going to repeat the cycle–there was such a disconnection in my relationship with my mother. I felt really compelled to heal the relationship with my mother so I didn’t repeat any cycles.
I knew that I had these unresolved tensions that I wanted to work through and heal. I had been looking well beyond residential schools, I was looking at five generations of women in my family and their specific stories, which impacted and developed forms of numbness in reaction to a lot of traumatic experiences and overwhelming amounts of loss. I was seeing this legacy passed down generation after generation, and I wanted to work through that and heal that.
The majority of our funding came from [APTN] to do a 45 min documentary, so I kept it just to residential school and my mother. But we [also] did do a lot of work around the longer feature which I hope to do at some point, which explores further beyond residential school from small pox and influenza; war as well. There is a lot that I want to explore, which is the development of a lot of fear and how that impacts and shapes the way we function. I could look at how many generations in order to survive used tools of numbing of emotions, and having to really recognize within myself how afraid I was to feel, even allow myself to cry by myself alone, without having an internal dialogue of “you big baby, you’re making things worse”. I don’t know how our people could’ve survived allowing full emotions. You can intellectualize but to allow ourselves to feel without the immense amount of fear and panic that [you’re] going to be swallowed by it, is a challenge.
MM: Can you talk about how blood memory plays a role in the legacy of trauma that you are exploring in the film?
HHB: I feel like the way I would explain it is that my ancestors’ stories and experiences run through me and show up in many ways. There are times in my life when I battle with depression quite heavily, and there are a lot of times when I feel like it’s not mine. I don’t understand from the experiences in my life and the amount of safety or the amount of great things I have, that it doesn’t add up. From a young age I’ve understood that deep sense of loneliness, and I have had experiences in my life that did equate to those sensations, but the amount that I’ve had to battle with [depression] in my life and how overwhelming it is, and to what depth; a girlfriend of mine describes it as blankets of sorrow, we carry these blankets of sorrow and are slowly trying to find ways of peeling them back, and I think all of us carry that. We carry all of the beauty as well of our legacies, our strengths, and resilience. But like a deep connection with things, so I believe that we carry those experiences–those things are starting to become accepted as science, but for me it’s just on a spiritual level.
MM: Legacy first screened in the Tsilhqot’in language on APTN. Can you talk about the use of language in Legacy? Also, can you talk about the setting of the film, the preparing of meat and berries, and other things that speak to the survival of culture and tradition in the face of colonization?
HHB: It’s quite simple, I wanted to show off my family and community, and that’s where I’m from. I always say I come from the land of hockey, horses and hunting, and I love it. Revolving a lot of the [scenes] around cultural aspects, like just showing up at my auntie’s house and she’s in the midst of berries, that is real. With language, it’s a reflection of what home is for me; it’s half English, half Tsilhqot’in. Some of my family is more comfortable in the language, some interchange back and forth between the two. There was no forcing [for the film to be in one language or the other], it was just how people chose to talk.
MM: In the film you explore the idea that we are blueprinted for life by a certain age, which can be daunting, yet all too many of us know this to be true in many ways. There is also always the possibility for healing and change, and the intimate conversation between you and your mother in Legacy speaks to that. Can you talk about having that conversation in front of the camera? Was it your first time having this dialogue with your mother, or had you talked about these things before?
HHB: I have to honour my mother, the truth is I’m just following in her tradition. A lot of people will say, “Oh you’re so brave, facing these things, being so honest,” but the truth is I learned it all from her. She started going through a lot of healing when I was thirteen, and it’s been a bumpy road, but through it she’s really been kind of the leader or forerunner in my family of really exposing or talking honestly and expressing emotion and not being afraid of it. When I was a teenager there was a lot of distance and a lot of anger with my mother, but by the time I hit my late teens I had just felt guilty about it.
What I realized through the process was that I could analyze wider issues with my mom, things that I had been able to see that were prominent and significant. For example, that she was physically abusive to me, I could easily go, yeah I’m pissed at her ‘cause she was violent. The real significant issue came up during the interview with her and I braiding each other’s hair.
A friend who was training to become a therapist was the one who had really brought to my attention that our own ability and self love is developed by the love we receive from our mothers. When she talked to me about this I thought to myself, that’s a perfect way to start the interview with my mother–I’ll ask her, “Did you always love me?” and I know what she’ll say, she’ll say, “Yeah, I always loved you, but I didn’t always know how to show it,” and then she’ll begin to open up about residential school and her life, or whatever. But that’s not what happened (laughing). In the movie you see that she doesn’t say automatically that she always loved me, and in the actual interview I asked her five times, and every time she still never says, “I loved you.” I think it’s because my mom is quite literal, and so to her, “Did you always love me?” meant, “Did you always love me every minute of every day?” But it didn’t matter because things happen for a reason. It awakened a pain I had so deeply buried and wasn’t aware of, and I had never experienced the sensation I had as I was sitting there and asking over and over again. I had the sensation surface up that I wanted my mom to tell me that she loved me, so badly. And it was such a huge pain, it was like a little child’s pain – like either tell me she loved me or touch me. It was such a foreign sensation for me, because I had spent my whole life feeling like I never needed my mom. I felt burdened by her, I felt like I had to look after her, I didn’t feel like at all that I needed her. And so even though it was this painful experience, it made me feel human again. It made me feel like, oh my god, I do need my mom. This whole time I felt really inhuman and like a really mean person because I felt just cold and her at all. And so, I went home that night and I woke up at three in the morning and I had a whole mouthful of puke, and I ended up puking all night.
MM: Seeing you so vulnerable in that moment with your mother really contrasted with the earlier scene in which we see you armoring up for hockey and making the comparison to armoring up for love or relationships. What is the relationship between you and your mother like now, and also are you seeing shifts in your other personal relationships?
HHB: Yes there have been some big shifts. I would still love for my mother and I to have a Hollywood version of a relationship…so, still working through acceptance. I wouldn’t say it’s been this total breakthrough and now it’s all roses.
But one bigger shift that has happened is that I am in a new relationship. In the last few months of editing in the project I met somebody, and I’ve never had a relationship like this, it’s been really easy and beautiful. There are still times of fear or [lack of] trust, and the biggest one for me now is learning to be vulnerable in the relationship. If I’m upset about something, learning how to voice it without being afraid that I’m going to chase him away. Or if there are things I want, learning how to ask for it. Or expressing the things that I’m feeling afraid of, for example, after our relationship became quite serious and he moved in with me—I can be really gregarious and fun and extroverted but I also have this other side that can get quite low and down—and so having him in my home now and having him witness me go to that place, there was a lot of fear that he’s going to be like, oh my god, who the hell am I with, how do I get out of here?! Having to work myself through that and acknowledge it, I had to learn to be more self loving, but still completely frozen in fear that he wasn’t going to accept me. And then having to learn to go and express to him, “I’m feeling really scared right now that you’re not going to love me because I’m down in the dumps and feeling really shitty.” You know how scary that was? And to have this beautiful man just hold me and say, “You’re really hard on yourself, I love you, this doesn’t scare me, we have down moments, and I think you’re wonderful.” And to be able to blubber like a baby and be held.
I was so excited to get to the deadline of the film because I thought then I’d be able to be free and relax, but then I realize that being in a loving intimate relationship my work is just continuing.
Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in) is an award-winning director and a leading talent in experimental documentary. Her work is broad-ranging, from intimate autobiographies on healing and language to forays into fictional film with ?E?anx-The Cave, a traditional Sci Fi story in the Tsilhqot’in language, which won top 10 film in Canada from Toronto International film festival 2009 and was an Official Selection of Sundance Film Festival 2011. Her work has aired on APTN, CBC, Knowledge, NITV (Australia) and has been showcased around the world at film festivals such as Berlinale, Rotterdam and Sundance.