Confronting Uncomfortable Pasts: Towards An Intersectional Approach to Women and Film

Katie Mackinnon
Editing by Daisy Silver

Screenshot from film: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’

In my third year studying at McGill University, I took a course on French feminist filmmakers that changed the way I thought about the role of women in art. Once a week, in a darkened room of an old house on Peel Street, we would sit together and watch the films of Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, and Catherine Breillat in awe. These were films I had never heard of before, like Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), or Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), and it was during these moments of stunned silence, when all my senses were attuned to the projected screen, that I developed a deeper understanding of the history of female writers and directors. We talk a lot about “gaze” in film and media studies, and it was through studying these films that I was first naïvely introduced to the fight to achieve the female gaze in cinema. Cléo de 5 à 7 is a masterpiece for many reasons, but what struck me most was watching a female protagonist engage with her own reflection, and to have the film acknowledge her own gaze as a important means of autonomy and communication.

I think it is an unfortunate truth that academic institutions often neglect teaching art made by women, or for women. For this reason, taking a course dedicated to teaching with rigour and intensity difficult films made by complex and brilliant women, was an experience that significantly altered my perspective.  It should be known that I am predominantly interested in studying history and I have continued to study it at graduate level. History is a field often comprised of stories about, or by, white men. I, along with many others, have spent much of my academic career and early adult life re-establishing mental timelines and correcting my historical consciousness as I seek out histories of people outside this paradigm. Discovering that there is a whole world of film that I never knew existed, film that spoke to me as a woman, affected me emotionally. I had never felt so included and inspired within my own field.

Two years later, during my Master’s degree in history, I impulsively took a course on Canadian and Indigenous history. Through this course, I began to learn more about Indigenous artists and their history of feminist filmmaking that extends beyond 50 years. Through this independent research, I first came into contact with Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and her short film A Red Girl’s Reasoning (2012).  Tailfeathers is a young filmmaker and member of the Kainai First Nation (Bloodtribe, Black Foot Confederacy)[1] and Sámi from Norway[2], currently based in Vancouver, Canada[3]. She has a small but intense body of work that critically discusses Indigeneity and artist activism.



This particular film, A Red Girl’s Reasoning, is striking, both in content and in its portrayal of femininity. It follows a young Indigenous woman, with long hair and a black leather coat, as she rides around a steel city on a motorbike with a hit list. The film is about murdering men, and it displays one of the most visceral scenes of redemption I have ever seen. Our female protagonist is the physical manifestation of all the anger and hurt that often comes with being the victim of assault. Her hit list is comprised of names of men who have escaped under the clumsy hands of the law, and live freely despite atrocious crimes committed against Indigenous women. It is gratifying in a way that reaches your core to watch a young, powerful and courageous woman take on the task of finally seeking justice through violent means. It is not only satisfying to watch as a woman but also as a woman who has experienced a man’s aggression. For Maija, and many Indigenous women, it references a widespread assault faced by this community.

In part, this film was inspired by the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada who are dehumanised in two senses: by their killer and the legal system that fails to defend them. In “Newsworthy’ Victims”, Kristen Gilchrist, a Canadian anthropologist and sociologist, writes a ground-breaking article that deconstructs the rhetoric and subsequent treatment of Indigenous women in Canada[5]. Gilchrist focuses her research on news media’s tendency to either ignore or downplay these reports of violence against Indigenous women.[6] Indigenous women not only disproportionately represent the most vulnerable community in Canada, they are also the least supported. From the ‘Highway of Tears,’[7] Robert Pickton, the Serial Killer[8] who targeted Indigenous women in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, to countless other horrifying murders and disappearances of young women across the country, Indigenous women are unprotected, unsupported, and largely discounted as a whole[9]. In A Red Girl’s Reasoning, Tailfeathers introduces a character that is autonomous, dictating the progression of every scene, who attains the revenge she seeks without obstacles. She is fearless and unstoppable, which elicits an invigorating sense of empowerment. Ultimately, this film introduces a new type of female character: one who destroys notions of female helplessness and demands a strong sense of justice that speaks directly to this national crisis.

This film is political, critical, and a work that could be taught cross-disciplinarily. It deals with histories of oppression, indigenous identities, and engages with themes of the political use of violence against oppressive structures. This film also represents a gaping hole in academia. When we study film and the history of oppression and injustice, we typically focus on the past, or attune our senses to easier topics, because they are more familiar. We can learn about the incredible female filmmakers that emerged from the French New Wave of the 1960s with a nostalgic sense of wonder, because it is easier. A Red Girl’s Reasoning belongs to a canon of work made by Indigenous filmmakers that is not formally recognized by academic institutions. Despite this, these pieces could easily slip into pre-existing critical frameworks used in courses such as women’s studies, world film, political theory, or Canadian history.

As affected as I was by learning about Varda and Denis for the first time, nothing compares to the reverberating silence that echoes in the absence of Indigenous art in academia. Instead of screening Nanook of the North (1922), Pocahantas (1995), Dances with Wolves (1990), and Peter Pan in all its reincarnations, or feminist films that exclude women of colour, we should insist on an intersectional approach to film studies. We should demand courses dedicated to studying the rich body of work by Indigenous filmmakers. There are many artists who have been recognized nationally for their tremendous pieces of work, the likes of which include multi-media artist Kent Monkman, Zacharias Kunuk and his incredible film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), New Zealand and Māori filmmaker Merata Mita, or feminist filmmaker Deepa Mehta. Maija Tailfeathers’s A Red Girl’s Reasoning is a stunning portrayal of a complicated issue that, if given the chance, would not only provide students with an opportunity to develop an understanding of subject they are unaware of, but also give Indigenous filmmakers the recognition and attention they deserve.

To learn more about Canada’s history and perpetuation of colonization, check out: “Fact Sheet: Root Causes of Violence Against Aboriginal Women and the Impact of Colonization,” created by Native Women’s Association of Canada, or the CBC’s “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” website. For more information about films created by Indigenous artists in Canada, see the National Film Board’s “Aboriginal Filmmaking Through the Years,” and the imagiNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.


“Aboriginal Filmmaking Through the Years,” National Film Board of Canada
“Fact Sheet: Root Causes of Violence Against Aboriginal Women and the Impact of Colonization,” Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival,”
“Missing and Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls.”
“No More Stolen Sisters,” Amnesty International Report.
“Project Newsworthy: Examining the Discourse of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.”
A Red Girl’s Reasoning. Directed by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, 2012.
Beau Travail. Directed by Claire Denis, Pyramide Distrbution, 1999.
Cléo de 5 à 7. Directed by Agnès Varda, 1962
Gilchrist, Kristen. “’Newsworthy’ Victims? Exploring Differences in Canadian Local Press Coverage of Missing/Murdered Aboriginal and White Women” Feminist Media Studies, Vol 10:4 (2010): 373-390.

[1] Indigenous peoples in Canada include a very diverse, multi-historied series of groups of people. The Kainai (Blood Tribe) First Nation occupies territory in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada.
[2] The Sámi people live in Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Finland. They are the only indigenous peoples of Scandinavia recognized and protected under the international conventions of indigenous peoples.
[3] Visit for more background on the artist.
[4] The female protagonist of the film holds up a lit cigarette to the camera, as if to burn. Screenshot pulled from the film, A Red Girl’s Reasoning.
[5] Kristen Gilchrist is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Carleton. Her article, “Newsworthy Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Aboriginal and White women,” was published in the Feminist Media Studies Journal in 2010.
[6] Quantitative and qualitative content analyses indicate stark disparities in the amount and content of coverage between groups. The Aboriginal women received three and a half times less coverage; their articles were shorter and less likely to appear on the front page, as explored by Gilchrist.
[7] This is a 720 km stretch of road that connects Prince George and Prince Rupert, two small Northern towns in British Columbia, Canada. The road gets it moniker from the series of murders and disappearances of predominantly indigenous women that have occurred for the past 50 years.
[8] Robert Pickton, a pig farmer in Port Coquitlam, BC, featured in a high profile news story when he was convicted of killing seven women in 2007, following a case that spanned several years. He was charged with murdering 26 women, many of whom were indigenous women.
[9] “More than 500 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since the 1980s yet press attention to this violence is relatively minimal,” From Gilchrist, Kristen. “’Newsworthy’ Victims?” See also: Fact Sheet: Root Causes of Violence Against Aboriginal Women and the Impact of Colonization, Native Women’s Association of Canada.

About the author:

Katie MacKinnon has a M.A. in History from the University of Waterloo, and a B.A. in History, English Literature, and Film from McGill University. Her current graduate research is on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the mid-1990s and the history of marginalized youth online through the use of archived webpages.

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