Alanis Obomsawin has just returned to Toronto from Chile at 5:30 this morning. It’s now 11:30 am, and she shows hardly a shred of jet lag or lethargy. She’s returning from a festival in Chile where all of her documentaries were screened to appreciative audiences, most of them screening more than once due to demand. On this brisk Saturday afternoon in early fall, the Abenaki filmmaker is swinging through Toronto to give a talk to the Indigenous Bar Association about the power and purpose of documentary filmmaking. After her brief sojourn in Toronto is completed, she’s immediately going back to work on her latest filmmaking project.
At the age of 83, I don’t know where she finds the time and energy to do it. Obomsawin, a one-time singer and model turned political activist and filmmaker, is the definition of a national treasure. She’s a tireless crusader and vital filmmaker in documenting the histories and plights of First Nations people in Canada. Her groundbreaking, but often very straightforward journalistic work has rightfully captured national and global attention. A mainstay of the National Film Board, Obomsawin has turned out some of the most visible and widely recognized documentaries in this country’s history.
When asked about her feelings on being the most recognized indigenous filmmaker in Canada, she humbly chuckles that it’s probably only her age that contributes to that.
“Well, I’m 83-years-old now,” she laughs. “I would imagine I wouldn’t be talked about as much if I just started a few years ago. I’ve been in film now for 46 years, but if I stayed as a singer longer, that probably would have been different.”
Despite her age and experience though her favourite people to talk to, outside of up and coming filmmakers, are people older than she is.
“I find it so fascinating when I interview old people,” she says about how she continually learns from her elders, even at her advanced age. “Whenever I go to a different province or community, my first question is wondering how they survived. And a lot gets answered from asking that very question, I find.”
“For me, talking to people about my films is all of it. Not only does film help to influence change and document history—which is very important—but it shows what everyday life is like. It’s there so people can see themselves and understand themselves.”
Obomsawin has partnered with the NFB on each of her filmmaking projects, all of which are available for viewing on the Film Board’s website, most of them free of charge. When she started her career as a filmmaker, her main goal was to change the way that people talked about Indigenous cultures. In one of her first meetings with NFB brass early in her career, she pointedly noted that even in films that spoke of the native experience, they rarely, if ever, actually featured First Nations people speaking out or to the camera. Other people would speak for them.
Her love of listening to the stories of others first and foremost fuelled her activism and shaped who she remains as a filmmaker. When she speaks about the importance of images in the shaping of history, she’s as passionate as a 20-year-old who just had their eyes opened to a larger world. For Obomsawin, everyone’s individual story and perception of her work is equally important.
“For me, talking to people about my films is all of it. Not only does film help to influence change and document history—which is very important—but it shows what everyday life is like. It’s there so people can see themselves and understand themselves. In terms of looking back at laws and seeing changes that were made, promises that were broken, all those things, film becomes a tool to make conversations happen. Doing master classes or talking, especially to students because I love talking to young people, it become much larger than just a film. It’s part of a way of thinking, expressing yourself, learning your language, hearing the stories of long ago, all the history is so fascinating. I will never get tired of it.”
“We live in a time where images are so important. It’s so much more important for us now. In the old days, I was raised in a place where we had no electricity, no running water, we had a well, and we had an earth road. In the evening, everything was done in the light of oil lamps and we listened to people talking. There were no images back then. It was all our imagination. If you had five different kids listening to something, you had five different stories. We are what we see in our minds, and that will always be different than the person standing next to you. I’ll always find that fascinating. This is one of the reasons why for me, the word is so important. I like to listen to people. I like talking to them a lot before I start making those images. I want to understand what the story is first, and I think the more we go on in terms of filmmaking, the more patient we become. We have become very angry sometimes, but very patient, and that’s key to making people understand a story.”
Over the years, Obomsawin’s style of filmmaking hasn’t changed very much. There have been technological changes over the years (she loves shooting on 16mm and digitally, but abhorred the era of videotape), but the roots of her storytelling have remained the same. When asked if much has really changed on a technical level with her filmmaking, she doesn’t have much to say. Her style of narrated journalistic documentary has always been made to speak more to the issues at hand rather than passing trends. Her job in covering First Nations issues for the NFB has proven to be a vital and indispensable one, but not beholden to anyone else’s styles or whims. She exposes governmental hipocracies and deeply entrenched scars in the harshest light of day possible and using the bare faced truth, even when some of her interview subjects (particularly government officials) would lie directly to her face.
“I like to listen to people. I like talking to them a lot before I start making those images. I want to understand what the story is first, and I think the more we go on in terms of filmmaking, the more patient we become.”
Most of what she learned about being a journalist and a filmmaker she says came from her experience on her most famous work, 1993’s Kanehstake: 270 Years of Resistance. Documenting an intense 78 day blockade staged by the Mohawk outside of Oka, Quebec, Obomsawin was caught between tribal chiefs, local police, and the Canadian military in a smouldering war of wills between Native people who rightfully wanted to keep their ancestral burial grounds and locals that wanted to build a golf course.
Talking to Obomsawin about the film and the emotions she felt still gets her choked up to this day. It was a nightmarish experience by all accounts, but something she needed to go through with. During the stand-off, it was constantly thought that the Mohawk and government forces would come to violent blows at any moment, something that prompted CBC to pull all their reporters from the front early on. Obomsawin was ill almost the entire time, sleeping outside in the elements early in the Quebec fall. She was constantly taunted by racist police officers that would call her “squaw” and “feather-face,” although she admits that some of the members of the military were quite friendly. Despite her heritage, she was also controlled by tribal leaders that would tell her when and where she could sleep or go to the bathroom.
Obomsawin had only made a small handful of documentaries up to that point with NFB crews that weren’t exactly trained or capable of mobilizing to cover breaking news, was tempted to give up at every turn of events. It was the assignment where everything changed for her as an activist and a filmmaker, teaching her resilience and patience. She learned so much from the experience that she would revisit tangential figures and incidents from her time there in subsequent films.
“The warriors that were stationed there, some of them were making their wills,” she starts explaining grimly. “It was that kind of a situation that we were getting confronted with, and it was sickening. And that was compounded by how we were always told as the media that we couldn’t get near the front. There were so many times where I said to myself ‘I’m packing up! I’m leaving!’ I almost couldn’t stay, and that was about learning patience. It was September and the ground was cold, and there I am starting to get the worst sickness [from] sleeping on a garbage bag as my tent.”
“After a few days of this, I was ready to leave, and I was approached by one of the military chiefs who were telling us to stay back. I told him I’m leaving, and he said, ‘What kind of stupidity is this?’ I was angry with him. ‘You think I am going to stay here when you tell me how far we can go, where and when we can go to the bathroom?’ I wasn’t alone. The rest of the press there were furious. I said I wasn’t staying. If you can’t treat me how I deserve to be treated, I won’t feel safe. They changed their rules somewhat within the hour. They came back and apologized to the journalists, and we no longer had to wait to go to the front. But once you ask or demand something, and then you get it, you learn to have that patience. That was something I learned from that experience more than anything.”
“When I made the film in Kanehstake, there was a certain degree of media training that the Canadian soldiers who spoke in the film had. They would lie. And we would all know they were lying because all of us there had the footage. Now, there is much more denial and contradiction. This is how you make war then and now. There was so much more discord on that front. There still is, but it has changed now because so much has been ignored or left unspoken. Back then, the language was much more well spoken, and much more profound. That’s why that situation ultimately didn’t end in a shootout. It was a totally different language.”
But as filming of Kanehstake was wrapping up, and Obomsawin had largely stuck things through on the front lines, she needed to find courage within herself simply to finish the project. Listening to how she left the region with her footage is akin to hearing someone telling a tale of what it’s like to be rescued from a hostage crisis. Government and local officials were constantly trying to coax her into giving her rides wherever she needed to go, something she resisted out of fear that the unflinching version of what happened there might never be told if she did.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fear that my footage would be confiscated.” Obomsawin recounts. “That’s something I’ve always been worried about after that situation. I told the chief that I would be leaving a day before him because the military would probably try to confiscate what I had. I had so much sound material with me, too, because my cameraman had left because he was afraid he was going to get shot at. At first I was working on 16mm and recording the sound separately. Then I was given a video camera, which I wasn’t comfortable with, but I was syncing the sound myself. All of those last shots, the sound and the image was all me. I felt that if these people had the courage to stay there this whole time and be patient, I would have the courage to stay there and to document it.”
“Help needs to continually come to people. It takes years for people to realize the design of abuse, and it’s horrible, but once it’s brought to light, you can work towards change. History can be horrible, but the future doesn’t have to be, and that’s part of the importance of images.”
Obomsawin never tries to presuppose what her work might mean to new generations of First Nations and documentary filmmakers, but she delights in the fact that she has been able to tirelessly work as an educator first and foremost. She sees the present as an exciting time for indigenous filmmakers, not just in Canada, but around the world.
“My main interest from the beginning has always been education” she says with a world weary, but genuine smile. “I see somehow that things are moving along. It’s not without force and not without fighting.”
And it’s not as if Obomsawin is slowing down at her age. She’s still thinking of writing a book of some sort about her experiences, and for the past year she has been working on her latest film. It’s a work that looks intensely at hearings ongoing at the Human Rights Tribunal about the cycles of abuse within one of Canada’s darkest cultural institutions: residential schooling. While it’s an issue that has become more prominent in hindsight, Obomsawin knows that there are still decades and generations worth of abuses that have remained silent out of shame, degradation, and disgust. It’s also a work that speaks to her remarkable propensity for patience and her belief in the power of the image.
“I’m confident that even if this case isn’t won, people won’t stop fighting until they’ve won. I think in general, if you look at the whole system of residential schools, for instance, for the longest time there was silence. Many people even if they weren’t abused never admitted that they went there. When people started talking, just as many people would still refuse to talk. What’s to be proud of if somebody raped you? What’s to be proud of if someone beats you and treats you terribly? This is why people were largely silent and I think films and talking about these issues has sparked a change. Events like what happened in residential schools encourages silence and shame. That’s precisely how abuse works, but someone needs to constantly come around, not just me, and say that silence solves nothing.
I think what the reconciliation did was to get people to at least tell the story like it is. Taking such weight off your heart isn’t easy, but if you don’t tell your story, you’re alone. When you tell it, people will hear that anguish in your heart about this. This is why people always have to follow up on these things. Help needs to continually come to people. It takes years for people to realize the design of abuse, and it’s horrible, but once it’s brought to light, you can work towards change. History can be horrible, but the future doesn’t have to be, and that’s part of the importance of images.”
All of Obomsawin’s films are available on the National Film Board’s website, most of them for free.