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(1932 - )
Documentary Filmmaker, Singer, Artist, Educator and Activist
Alanis Obomsawin is the best known of many Aboriginal Canadian documentary filmmakers, perhaps because she is one of the first, having started with the National Film Board (NFB) in the 1960s. However, she is also well known because of her monumental undertaking of creating an educational film that delves into the complex and historical circumstances surrounding the "Oka Crisis" in the summer of 1990. This film, entitled Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance, has been shown at many film festivals and other venues and is studied at schools and universities across the country. It is effective not only because of her style — using interviews that render a sense of subjective sensitivity and integrity — but also because Alanis was the only filmmaker allowed "behind the scenes" and able to provide the point of view of the Mohawk people. Her reputation as an advocate for social justice for Native people in Canada through her filmmaking certainly garnered the trust necessary to enter into this sensitive and dangerous situation, yet she is much more than a filmmaker or an activist.
Many journalists and other writers have attempted to capture the spirit of this well-respected filmmaker. An article in Take One presents a captivating description of the enigma that is Alanis:
"The 70-year-old writer, director and member of the Abenaki Nation is considered one of the country's most distinguished filmmakers. A pioneering artist, singer, educator, community activist, Member [now Officer] of the Order of Canada, Obomsawin is to her legion of admirers a legend in her own time. Obomsawin — one of only three remaining staff documentary filmmakers at the NFB — has moved from the margins to the center of institutional power in Canada. While her work is now officially embraced by the repressive state that she lombasts [sic], Obomsawin has retained the instincts, sensibility and posture of the eternally alienated outsider. ... In person, Obomsawin is the epitome of dignity, grace and fine manners. She is humble and without affectation. ... As an interlocutor she can be mischievous, playful and wildly funny. Belying her gentle, nurturing nature, she is a formidable force when challenged. Able to shift her mood at a whim, she possesses a wholly unique quality that allows her to disarm and charm at the same time. Her piercing dark brown eyes host a swirling sea of emotion, at times compassionate, inquisitive, earnest, defiant and wise."
(Harewood, p. 13)
Alanis is an intriguing and complex individual, someone who has undertaken an interesting walk or journey in life. Obomsawin (which translates to "pathfinder") was born in New Hampshire in 1932, the daughter of a hunting and fishing guide and a healer. She is of Abenaki origin, a tribal group known as "the people of the sunrise." She moved to the Odanak Reserve, near Sorel, Quebec, at the age of six months and she spent most of her early childhood close to her Aboriginal roots. She recalls those times as beautiful because of the colors of the brilliant ash wood splints used in making baskets, the smell of the sweet grass in everyone's homes, and the fond memories of beloved relatives. Her aunt Alanis made beautiful white ash baskets, while her mother's cousin, Theo, taught her the history of the Abenaki people. Other relatives carved and made canoes from the plentiful ash, spruce, birch and pine trees available nearby.
Later, when she was nine years old, she moved with her mother and father to Trois-Rivières, located only 48 kilometres from the Odanak Reserve. This proved to be a difficult adjustment, as she was the only Native child at school and was not fluent in French or English. As well, she experienced prejudice and racism on a daily basis and was regularly beaten up by her schoolmates. In history classes she was forced to listen to "teachings" about "martyred priests being tortured to death by Indians." (Alioff and Schouten Levine, p. 10) People often looked down on her and her family. Her parents, however, remained true to their Native traditions and spiritual beliefs, and often even treated many of their neighbours with traditional herbal medicines.
Three years after Alanis arrived in Trois-Rivières, her father died and she began to rebel against the prejudice and racism: "My life changed when I was 12 ... My father died and I decided I wasn't going to get beat up at school every day by the other girls in the classroom. It was just a decision — just like that I said, 'no more'. And that's all there was to it. It stopped the next day" (Monk, p. 60). She also fought against the "Indian" stereotype: "I never believed what I was told I was. I knew that there was a lot of wrong there. Every time I tried to do something they would tell me, 'Oh you can't do this, you're an Indian!' The more they said that to me, the more I said, 'Well I am going to do that anyway'. I was just a fighter. I just wanted to make changes." (Harewood, p.14)
This fighting spirit is something she brings to her work although she uses more strategy now, which comes with maturation. It was because of her experiences at school that she has become active for social change: "That was my fight from the very beginning, to fight for changes in the educational system concerning our people, and I wanted to see our history being taught and to try and do our own programs and get it in there as part of the curriculum." (Tallon, p. 12)
Alanis left Trois-Rivières at the age of 22 and, after having learned to speak English in Florida, moved to Montréal in the late 1950s, where she became part of a circle of artists. Soon after, she emerged as a singer (often traveling the folk music festival circuit but also performing in schools, museums and prisons) and a storyteller, primarily to help instill a pride in Native oral histories and hence a sense of self-esteem in Native children. "Obomsawin's first love centres on Aboriginal youth." (Steven, p.176)
In 1965, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made a documentary on her performances and her social activism for their Telescope program, which brought her to the attention of two National Film Board producers, Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall. They were working on a documentary on activists and invited her to consult on this and several other projects. By 1967, she was working on her own projects, including multimedia educational kits for the Manowan and L'Hawat tribes.
Alanis continues to work for the National Film Board and has also continued singing and visiting schools, prisons and communities. Her best-known recording, Bush Lady, was released in 1988. On a more personal note, she has raised her daughter, Kisos, who is now in her thirties. She also does etchings, some of which she exhibits publicly from time to time, to help de-stress from the work of the day.
In 1971, Alanis completed her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, a film that reflects her attachment to the children of this remote Cree village on James Bay. She did this by presenting the drawings and paintings of the children and by giving them the opportunity to talk about these images and daily events in their community. Her second film, Mother of Many Children (1977) was a project Alanis felt very strongly about from the beginning. In this film,
"Obomsawin traces the cycle of life from birth to childhood, puberty, young adulthood, maturity, and old age, through introducing the viewer to girls and women from many different First Nations across the country. It is a family album of native womanhood, portraying a matriarchal society which has been pressured for centuries into adopting different standards and customs ..."
(Houle, p. 207)
She had difficulty convincing others to fund the film. The topic was not of interest to the Film Board, nor did it garner the support of the Department of Indian Affairs (which had partially financed other films). Alanis received letters telling her to "forget it". At one point, she gave up but then reconsidered because of all the energy she had already invested into it. She went to Ottawa and started knocking on doors until she came back with funding from the Secretary of State. It was necessary for her to do one segment at a time and then go looking for more funding. When the film was finally finished, she received a letter from the Secretary of State saying they had "never invested their money in a better way in any film up to that time." (Alioff & Schouten Levine, p.14)
Later, her films covered more political and social issues, beginning with Incident at Restigouche (1984), a film about the two controversial raids by a battalion of 550 Quebec Provincial Police of a small Mi'kmaq reserve on the Restigouche River. The reason given for the raids was that the Quebec Ministry of Fisheries needed to investigate alleged salmon overfishing on the reserve. This film was an important one for Alanis because it was one of the first to demonstrate her strength of character. Gittings calls Alanis' confrontation of the then Quebec Minister of Fisheries, Lucien Lessard, one of the "strongest scenes" of any documentary film because she points out the "hypocrisy and short-sightedness of his position on national sovereignty":
"When you came to Restigouche, I was outraged by what you said to the Band Council. It was dreadful. The Chief said, "You French Canadians are asking for sovereignty here in Quebec. You are saying it's your country and you want to be independent in your country. We are surprised that you don't understand us Indian people and our sovereignty on our land." And you answered, "You cannot ask for sovereignty because to have sovereignty one must have one's own culture, language and land."
(Gittings, p. 218)
Gittings adds that "by the end of the interview and the end of the film, Lessard makes a personal apology for any problems his actions may have caused." (Gittings, p. 218) This is one of the prime examples of Alanis "fighting back" in her adult life.
Yet it was not just the Minister of Fisheries that Alanis took it upon herself to confront. It was also necessary for her to challenge certain people at the Film Board, who thought she shouldn't be interviewing "Whites". She responded to these individuals:
"... nobody is going to tell me who to interview or not interview. And if you feel that I, as a Native person, cannot interview white people, we'll go through everything the Film Board has done with Native people, and see who interviewed them. And I'll tell you something else, not you, nor any other person could have faced the Minister the way I did. You've got a long walk to do before you can do that."
(Alioff and Schouten Levine, p.15)
Incident at Restigouche also gave the people of the reserve a sense of dignity and a chance to express themselves. It also created a better understanding between members of the community.
From this film, Obomsawin went on to create another important work, Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), a poignant look at the short life of a Métis adolescent who committed suicide after having been shuffled in and out of 28 foster homes and institutions. Alanis felt very strongly about what happened to Richard, saying, "I tell the kids to look at the loss that we have, what a poet he was. He's gone. It's too bad nobody realized, what happened, how he got there." (Steven, p. 182) The film also provided a penetrating look at the child welfare system in Alberta at the time, and it brought about change. Says Alanis:
"I was very pleased when the Alberta government bought the rights to the film. Many social workers in different departments see it now. One time I was in Edmonton ... and a man who had been the provincial ombudsman presented me with two new reports, saying that the Richard Cardinal film had helped force new policies and laws in Alberta. Young people in the audience said to him, 'Why do you need a film to be made before you change the law?' He quickly replied, 'Well, sometimes the government waits for the public to make a move, to push, otherwise they don't know.' It was incredible. I was shocked but happy that the film was able to do that. But primarily, I made it for Richard."
(Steven, p. 182)
She also made the film for other children: "I want people who look at the film to have a different attitude next time they meet what is called a 'problem child', and develop some love and some relationship to the child — instead of alienating him." (Alioff and Schouten Levine, p. 12)
For Alanis, it was one of the most painful films she has made. She travelled to Richard's home town of Fort Chipewyan and visited the cemetery where he was buried.
"[She also] went to see the worst place Richard had been and I met the foster father there. The man was very upset and angry and wouldn't cooperate. I told him that I was going to make the film anyway. Richard's diary had already been seen publicly. He said that it's all lies. But I also saw that man as human, for who was to know back then when he had Richard what would happen? Many Native children and white children were in bad situations. Then you expose that situation twenty years later. Some of these people just didn't think. So much has gone on unknown to the public."
It is easy to see Alanis' compassion for others, including the foster parents. It wasn't her intention to point fingers at people who were struggling, such as social workers, but more to change an ineffective system:
"I attended the inquiry into Richard's death and by the time the last social worker came into the box, I began to feel for him too. He told the judge he had a hundred cases and had to travel two hundred miles. The rule was that they had to see each placement once a month. Now, nobody can do a good job with that ... The government's whole system was so bad. But when you look at the immediate situation you blame the first person you can. I didn't want to do that."
In another passage, she demonstrates the need to discuss her intentions in making the film, so that there is a better understanding between filmmaker and audience:
"The first time the film showed in Edmonton ... I saw many people I assumed were social workers. Their faces were severe and some took notes. They looked very unfriendly. I understood. I knew how they felt. After the film, I'll tell you, it was dead silence. But when I started to talk the atmosphere changed totally. I said to them, 'I know some of you think I've made this film to point the finger at you. I didn't do that. I want all of us to look at what has happened to this child. I want to force the government to change the rules — to find better foster places for these children.' ... I wanted the feeling that this must not happen again."
(Steven, p. 183-184)
Since then, Alanis has made several other films, including one on an addictions recovery center near Edmonton, one on homeless people in Montréal, and a film about a day care center in Montréal — all about Aboriginal institutions serving Aboriginal people. Then came the events at Oka, and the series of films that evolved from behind-the-scenes film footage, including the arrest of one of the individuals involved in the stand-off and a personal look at one of the "warriors", an iron worker who had worked on high rises in New York City. More recent films include Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002), which depicts the violence and racial tension evident in the political events concerning the New Brunswick fisheries near the Mi'kmaq community of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church).
Several writers have offered the analyses of Alanis' distinctive filmmaking style. One strong element is the issue of the authenticity of voice, or the need for Aboriginal people to tell their own stories:
"[...] the white imagination of Hollywood has come to see the American Indian as a social victim in much the same way as Canadian literature did decades ago. From the cardboard villainy of Indians in old Westerns from the fifties, to the noble martyrdom of a socially minded effort like Little Big Man, and more recently to such homages as Dances With Wolves and Geronimo, we can see hints of revisionism taking hold, nudging Americans into a less divisive and slightly more humble perception of National Self vis-à-vis the Native Peoples who were destroyed in its creation. ...The most obvious — and most important — improvement is that we now have a body of film work created by Aboriginals, instead of white people telling Aboriginal stories, in the context of the identity process, this development cannot be undervalued because it puts the power of creation back in the hands of those who are being represented ..."
(Monk, p. 48)
Bird Runningwater, Native American Initiatives programmer at the Sundance Film Festival in California, provides an Aboriginal perspective on Alanis' style:
"Obomsawin's films represent a corrective to the historical exclusion of Native image in film, the vast majority of it has been created without the consent and most often without the control of the native person whose image is being taken and utilized in media. I really believe Alanis is using a medium to provide a voice and a story for a lot of people who historically have not had that opportunity."
(Harewood, p. 14)
Robert Houle, one of the curators of the exhibition Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada, describes Alanis' work as "social realism" that is a catalyst for change and healing:
"Obomsawin calls film a 'place' where native people can talk to each other about their losses, their memories of injustice, their desire to share what is good about their way of life, and with that sharing as viewers of her documentaries perhaps arrive at a better appreciation of how the dispossessed, dislocated, and disoriented try to come out of the abyss. This social realism is what makes Obomsawin narratives potent and cathartic; they are like the axiom which says one has to deal with the poison before a process of healing can begin. To her as director/producer/writer, film must attempt to transform people and society; it must be an artifice of social reform."
(Houle, p. 207)
Obomsawin's style breaks from the traditional National Film Board didactic documentary in favour of the interview:
"The interview, used to shape point of view, becomes a valuable instrument to validate individual biography, make intelligible the ongoing struggles for Native self-definition, and contest Eurocentric narratives of First Nations history. ... Her work subverts the objectifying tendencies of the social documentary by revealing a heartfelt respect for the past and present of the people she has filmed."
(Pick, p. 77)
As well, Obomsawin's subjective approach is not necessarily seen as derogatory:
"Her work displays little in the way of stylistic flourish or excess, and usually features explanatory voice-overs ... However, this apparently simple aesthetic is peppered with a pronounced subjectivity. Further, Obomsawin's work displays a tendency towards lyricism and massive narrative digressions ... Describing her style, Obomsawin has said that 'I like to make it as plain as possible, so that the attention has to be on the work and what the people are saying ... I don't like to do fancy things where your attention is on other things'... Even though she draws on a semi-minimalist form, Obomsawin's films are extremely subjective. This subjectivity is most clearly expressed by her own voice ... The voice-over is far from the voice-of-god variety ...; instead, it has the effect of identifying whose eyes are seeing the action."
(White, p. 366-367)
Although Alanis has been taken to task for her subjective stance, in general, these criticisms have demonstrated a lack of understanding in what she is trying to do. White further explains:
"Obomsawin has said that the most important part of her making Kahnesatake was that 'there had to be a document that came from us ... That was crucial.' Less than an attempt to be the definitive voice, Kahnesatake was a distinct voice, one among many, and one that, finally, would allow the people under siege and their compatriots to give their side of the story. Going so far as to call the film's approach demagogic shows a lack of clear understanding of the uses to which Obomsawin's subjective voice is put."
(White, p. 368)
These passages indicate that Alanis has developed her own style, using the interview format and subjectivity in a powerful way to accomplish her role as an advocate for social justice for Aboriginal peoples.
Alanis Obomsawin is a woman of complexity. Her Native culture is rooted in the beauty of her early childhood on the Odanak Reserve and the fight against discrimination and injustice of her teenage years. As a young adult, she became a singer, educator and activist. Her work with the National Film Board, though not without its challenges to a woman and Aboriginal filmmaker, has allowed her to further her role, through film, as an educator and advocate for social change, thus living up to her name as a "pathfinder". She is a fighter who resonates with compassion and an understanding of the imperfection that underscores what it means to be human:
"I would never even stop going to prisons, and skid row, where you find a high percentage of our people. You watch the drinking, the people sleeping on the sidewalks, being abused, and you hear terrible language. It's a snake pit. But I cannot divorce myself from them. There was a time when I was told that's where I should be. I fought back and fought back. That's why I understand and love all the people down there. They're not separate from me. ... there's lots of people that somehow have managed to be strong and do something. I don't mean to say that the people who are down there on the street are not strong. But how much can you take and how long do you go on until you finally believe what they're telling you: that you're no good, ... that you don't have a culture that you don't belong. You see your parents who are drinking, who are in a terrible state. And you look in the mirror, and you don't like what you see, so you end up fighting your own people ... And it took me many, many years before I could understand that."
(Alioff and Schouten Levine, p. 13)
It is this combination of strength and courage to challenge intermingled with compassion that define her as a filmmaker of substance and integrity. Similarly, Alanis has never wanted to publicize her own challenges as an Aboriginal woman filmmaker in the male world of film. Rather than speak out on her personal struggles, her priority is to advocate for social change and to bring the voices of Aboriginal peoples to the forefront:
"The basic purpose is for our people to have a voice. To be heard is the important thing, no matter what it is that we're talking about — whether it has to do with having our existence recognized, or whether it has to do with speaking about our values, our survival, our beliefs, that we belong to something that is beautiful, that it's O.K. to be an Indian, to be a native person of this country."
(Alioff and Schouten Levine, p. 13)
1971 Christmas at Moose Factory
1977 Mother of Many Children
1979 Canada Vignettes: Wild Rice Harvest Kenora
1980 Canada Vignettes: June in Povungnituk - Quebec Arctic
1984 Incident at Restigouche
1986 Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child
1987 Poundmaker's Lodge: A Healing Place
1988 No Address
1988 A Way of Learning *
1993 Le Patro Le Prévost: 80 Years Later
1993 Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
1995 My Name is Kahentiiosta
1997 Spudwrench - Kahnawake Man
2000 Rocks at Whiskey Trench
2002 Is the Crown at War With Us?
2006 Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises
* The Native American Council of Dartmouth College presents A Way of Learning (a non-NFB 1988 film made in conjunction with professor (and co-producer) Bruce Duthu about the experiences of Aboriginal students in the Native American Program at Dartmouth College where the incidence of racism was very high)
Member of the Order of Canada, 1983 (appointment and investiture)
National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1994 for film presented by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation)
Toronto Women in Film and Television's (TWIFT) Outstanding Achievement Award in Direction (1994)
Outstanding Contributions Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (CSAA), 1994 - the first person honoured with this award who was not an academic in the field of sociology and anthropology
Officer of the Order of Canada, 2001 (appointment), 2002 (investiture)
Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts (2001)
Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award (2008)
Numerous national and international film awards
Fellowship from the Ontario College of Art
Honorary Doctor of Letters from York University
Honorary Doctor of Laws from Concordia University
Honorary Doctor of Literature from Carleton University
Chaired the Board of Directors of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal
Canada Council's First Peoples Advisory Board
Studio 1, National Film Board of Canada's Aboriginal Studio
Advisor, New Initiatives in Film, a Studio D program for women of color and women of First Nations
Board of Aboriginal Voices
Board of Directors for the Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network
Board of Directors for the Public Broadcasting Association of Quebec
Advisory Committee on Multiculturalism and Issues of Equity at Concordia University
"Alanis Obomsawin." National Gathering on Aboriginal Artistic Expression. Ottawa: Canadian Heritage conference June 17-19, 2002. www.expressions.gc.ca/obomsawin_e.htm (accessed September 8, 2004).
Allioff, Maurie, and Susan Schouten Levine. "Interview: The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin." Cinema Canada. No. 142 (June 1987), p. 10-15.
Gittings, Christopher E. "Visualizing First Nations." In Canadian National Cinema: Ideology, Difference and Representation. London, England: New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 196-230.
Harewood, Adrian. "Alanis Obomsawin: A Portrait of a First Nation's Filmmaker." Take One. Vol. 12, no. 42, p. 13-15.
Houle, Robert. "Alanis Obomsawin." In Land, Spirit, Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992, p. 206-211.
Lewis, Randolph. Alanis Obomsawin : The Vision of a Native Filmmaker. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Monk, Katherine. "First Takes: Our Home and Native Land." In Weird Sex & Snowshoes: and Other Canadian Film Phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, ©2001, p. 45-62.
Morrisseau, Miles. "Alanis Obomsawin: Documenting Our Reality." Aboriginal Voices. Vol. 3, no. 3 (July-September 1996), p. 28.
Newson, Janice A. "Outstanding Contribution Award 1994: Alanis Obomsawin." Society: Société. Vol. 19, no. 2 (May 1995), p. 37-39.
Pick, Zuzana. "Storytelling and Resistance: The Documentary Practice of Alanis Obomsawin." In Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women's Cinema. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ©1999, p. 76-93.
Steven, Peter. "Interviews: Alanis Obomsawin." In Brink of Reality: New Canadian Documentary Film and Video. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1993, p. 176-186.
Tallon, Joan. "Order of Canada Promotion for Alanis Obomsawin." Windspeaker. Vol. 19, no. 10 (February 2002), p. 12.
White, Jerry. "Alanis Obomsawin, Documentary Form, and the Canadian Nation(s)." In North of Everything: English Canadian Cinema since 1980. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002, p. 364-375.