The Empathetic Lens

Lorna Tucker’s documentary Amá exposes the abuse of Native American women and their families over the last sixty years. Interviewing victims, officials and whistleblowers, she uncovers a mass enforced sterilisation of Native women that continued up to the 1980s, as well as the removal of children that fractured whole Native families.

In conversation with ASFF, Tucker discusses cinema’s strength of presence for engaging an audience, the responsibility of the audience and the need for the conversation that has begun to continue.

ASFF: How far is cinema an empathetic art form?
Yeah absolutely, and that’s why I make films. I obviously love movies, and you want to entertain people, but there’s a way of delivering messages and taking people on a journey so they have a little bit more of an understanding. I think that’s the only thing that drives me with film, and of course with Westwood and now with Amá, it’s all a progression. 

ASFF: One of the themes of the film, specifically through the plan to give women more freedom over their fertility choices, is how a good intention can be exploited and ultimately lead to suffering.
We all have a colonial way of thinking as well. We think that we can make judgements and help other people, but maybe that culture, that’s not what it is built upon. It’s very easy for us to say we need to save the world, but actually we may need to ask people what help they want [laughs], how can we facilitate them instead of helping them. We all have the best intentions and I’ve read things on paper, and you think that kind of makes sense. Then you are confronted with the people who have been affected by it, you hear their side, and you are: Wow, people making these decisions are so far removed from the people they are meant to be helping.

ASFF: The film reveals that cultures think and feel distinctly from one another, for example, happiness in America versus Native American communities are completely different concepts. This aspect of difference continues to be relevant to the world today and to our immediate and distant future.
This is going on all over the world. In India women are being dragged out of their homes and sterilised, and their mother in laws are being told they could be given something if they put their daughter-in-law up for sterilisation. These are being funded by US Aid, and there is no formal structure in place to protect the women, and a lot of the doctors are being paid per sterilisation. So you have these massive abuses happening, and it’s all around the world, but it affects indigenous people across the globe, Australia too. What’s important is that we now start this dialogue to change this.

There are cases that came out in Canada where women were told their children would be taken off them if they didn’t have sterilisation. Charon Asetoyer, the woman in Amá she is fighting to protect native women because she believes it is still happening, but it is more coercive now than doing it without their knowledge. Now it is: We will take your welfare away from you, it is dangerous to have another child. What we are trying to do with the film is expose it and see the human suffering involved when these policies are put into place without any framework. There are so many abuses upon their bodies, and that they are so shut off in small pockets of America, and their culture is still built on the size of their families, the shame that is bred, the non-talking that happens, that is almost why it has affected them more so than anyone else in such great numbers.

ASFF: Unlike the mainstream news media that invariably works in cycles, the film can support this ongoing conversation, focusing not just on a moment.
LT: Absolutely, and as I said Charon Asetoyer is running the campaign called Break the Silence, because a lot of the young kids don’t know that this happened to the older generation, and they don’t understand about these coercion techniques. So off the back off this film, we are hoping to increase screenings on reservations and in universities where the women all come together to talk and to educate kids, and by sharing to make sure this never happens again. So the campaign off the back of it is run by women who have been fighting these abuses for thirty odd years, and they are the best equipped women to run it. I worked with them to tell their story to help shine a light on it, and they are the women that are going to make change. But it’s down to us the audience to start backing these women vocally, spreading the word, to make sure that it’s spoken about in schools and teaching hospitals. It’s up to is to amplify their message too because if you lift the veil that’s how you stop these abuses happening. 

ASFF: Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, and does this vary from film to film?
I would say that this has changed me the greatest because I have realised how powerful film as a medium can be – to make people laugh and to entertain, but how you can subtly allow people, by giving them knowledge to change and to do something. I think that has changed me forever. I don’t know, how does one change? I guess before I made this film I was in and out of America all the time. I was learning and taking from America, but I didn’t understand that actually if you look a little deeper, you have these absolute atrocities that are happening. You also have absolute poverty with all women of colour, with inequality throughout the country, and it really opened my eyes a lot. It just made me always dig a little deeper and to listen.

I am quite a fiery person and it’s hard to calm me down and to keep me still. It made me realise the power of filmmaking is allowing the audience to witness without your views, without needing to interrupt. My voice became part of the film because it became very apparent that I was finding it very hard to go on a journey with these women, one that was quite difficult when they each have a bigger understanding of the culture. In an ideal world I would have never put my voice in there because listening to them is the most powerful thing. But I think every film changes you. I did Westwood and that toughened me up because you go into that film, and everyone is your friend until you say no, and then they don’t like you anymore and they take it personally. This film changed me by realising you are in it for the long run, and you are in it for the right reasons, and your intent is right. If people say no or it doesn’t come out, you don’t turn your back on it; you just have to look at it from a different angle and so yeah, this one gave me patience.

Paul Risker

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