Aboriginal filmmaker is a witness to the future

Alanis Obomsawin expresses hope in youth: “The future looks different.” (Photo: Linda Dawn Hammond)
Alanis Obomsawin expresses hope in youth: “The future looks different.” (Photo: Linda Dawn Hammond)

Alanis Obomsawin expresses hope in youth: “The future looks different.” (Photo: Linda Dawn Hammond)

There is something in the air, something new in the public consciousness regarding First Nations.

Perhaps it’s the new awareness of Canada’s history raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the headlines made by the Idle no More movement. One very likely reason for this softly rumbling sense of awakening must be that there are so many up and coming First Nations artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians making their mark. Many are among the first generation that has not gone to residential schools.

Alanis Obomsawin, Canada’s preeminent documentary filmmaker, confirms this feeling. “Definitely, the future is looking very different,” she says, sitting in her cozy office at the National Film Board, where she has worked for more than four decades. “It really comes from the young people who are recognizing who they are after having gone through so much exclusion, so much struggle. They recognize that they are part of something very special in this country, that their parents and grandparents went through hell. It is an incredible time. I think it’s really the seventh generation.”

Obomsawin, regal and elegant, yet generous and accommodating, explains that the prophecy of the seventh generation—one that will save the people—is common to many First Nations.

“I feel this is it now, and it’s a very exciting time. It’s very difficult and very painful—but also very beautiful and very strong. What the young people are thinking and doing is just extraordinary.”

It was a different, “very difficult time” when Obomsawin, 81, started her career. A member of the Abenaki nation who lived on a reserve near Montreal before moving to Trois Rivieres at the age of 9, she became a singer who took her traditional music and stories to schools and other institutions across the country. By 16 she was determined to change the way aboriginal people were perceived by mainstream society, which she did through her concerts.

“My battle was to influence changes in the educational system because the teaching they were doing, the history of Canada, was openly teaching other people to hate our people. That damaged all of us for many generations.” She said in a recent interview that she recalled her school days as “hell” and history lessons depicting aboriginal people as savages seemed to be a “campaign of hate.”

When she started her singing career, she could “never do enough.”

She still accepts invitations to sing, in schools and prisons, whenever she can.

In 1966, the CBC featured her in a television program and she came to the attention of the NFB. She was hired as a consultant for a film on aboriginal people, which she says she will never do again, because she felt she was being used to enter the community. Instead, she continued doing what she had always done, but using her eyes, ears and a film camera instead of her singing voice.

“I knew nothing about films. I learned here, it happened here and I’ve been here for 45 years.

“Before I was doing the same thing through singing and talking about history—the same reason, the same effort and the same result. My ideas and way of working haven’t changed.”

But it is exponentially more powerful because of the power and reach of cinema, she says.

Obomsawin has made approximately 40 documentaries at the NFB, including the first professional materials for classrooms about the lives and concerns of First Nations, told from the perspective of aboriginals. Her camera acts as an eyewitness, documenting not only facts but personal stories of individuals who can never be forgotten or denied.

Obomsawin’s most recent documentary, Hi-Ho Mistahey, has been short-listed for best feature-length documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards, where she will be honoured with the Humanitarian Award for exceptional contributions to community and public service.

It was Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, who told Obomsawin about Shannen Koostachin, a 14-year-old girl who mobilized her community to build a “proper” school instead of the windy, freezing “portables” they were forced to use after their school was contaminated by a diesel fuel leak. When Shannen died in a car accident, the community took up the fight.

“Children were always my main interest, and I went to check it out,” Obomsawin recalled.

“As soon as I entered the village I knew there was a lot of hardship and after a couple of days I said I was going to do something.”

However, Obomsawin put the project on hold to make The People of the Kattawapiskak River during the Attawapiskat housing crisis, when infrastructure and safety concerns led to a state of emergency. The film takes an unflinching look at the isolated northern community, plagued by poverty and an arctic climate, barely surviving next to a multi-million dollar diamond mine built on what used to be traditional lands. In the film, Chief Theresa Spence talks about the importance of treaty rights.

“When our grandfathers signed, the purpose was to build a future together with respect and honour and to share the land. It’s important for Canadian citizens to understand what is a treaty and for First Nations youth to be educated and protect it for the future, because if we don’t that treaty will dissolve slowly. I know the government is planning that move. They need to recognize that it’s here forever, there is a purpose for it and that is to build the future together.”

Obomsawin’s films, such as Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child (1986) have brought about concrete changes in policy and in the way aboriginal people are seen and how they see themselves. She is already cutting her next film, about the Idle No More marches to Ottawa and treaty rights.

A quintessential artist, she lives in the moment. “I am so busy doing what I’m doing and I am so passionate about my work that being 81 has nothing to do with it. I feel I’m going to do as much as I can, while I can, that’s all.”

The Canadian Screen Awards Live Broadcast Gala will air Sunday March 9 at 8pm on CBC TV. To learn more about Shannen’s Dream, visit fncaringsociety.com.


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