One of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin has made 20 powerful films on the lives and political struggles of Aboriginal people in North America. Born into the Abenaki Nation in New Hampshire in 1932, Obomsawin began her career as a singer, writer, and storyteller until being hired as a National Film Board (NFB) consultant in 1967. In 1971, she seized an opportunity to direct her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, a study of life in a small Northern settlement that was based on children’s drawings. From then on, her career blossomed at the NFB, where she contributed a rare Native perspective to the complacent Canadian media landscape. Her films emphasize many forms of First Nations sovereignty and resistance, and include Mother of Many Children (1977), Incident at Restigouche (1984), Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), No Address (1988), and Kanehsatake 270 Years of Resistance (1993)—one of four films she made about the 1991 stand-off known as the Oka crisis. (All of her films are described on the NFB website.) Although in the U.S. she has not yet garnered the attention that she deserves, her films have won numerous awards at film festivals around the globe. Kanehsatake was even shown on Japanese television to an estimated audience of 23 million.
Today, Obomsawin continues working at the NFB, where she has worked for more than three decades, most recently producing Is the Crown at War with Us? (2002), a hard-hitting examination of the Canadian government treatment of the Mi’gmaq fishermen of Burnt Church, New Brunswick. Writer Randolph Lewis sat down with the filmmaker in the sunny courtyard of the National Film Board in Montreal to discuss her work, the politics of white Canadians’ relationship to Native peoples, and the role of film in creating social change.
Randolph Lewis (Rail): What do you think your films are saying to white Canadians about Native peoples that they don’t know?
Alanis Obomsawin: That white Canadians know nothing.
Rail: They know nothing about Native life?
Obomsawin: Yes. I’m talking about in general. I think there are people who are at the university level, people who have learned many things, who have never seen an Indian. They have learned a lot of things about them but they don’t know any Indians personally, or have never met one, so they have another whole idea of what native people are. To go there and to live with them is a shock to white Canadians because what they read does not represent what Native people are really. You need the relation and the learning places. You need it all.
Rail: And for you, film is one such learning place?
Obomsawin: Yes. The universities are learning places but the universities go to the Native communities to get their knowledge, like these anthropologists and ethnologists. So Native perspectives should be equally respected. If you are going to a community where you are learning things, and you want to write a thesis about what you are learning, you’ve got to have some respect for the people you are working with.
Rail: And give back to them?
Obomsawin: Yes—and not think that they are inferior to you because they did not go to university. You leave the university to get some knowledge in these Native communities, and you get a degree because you get this knowledge. The Native people have helped you, just like your teachers, but for a long time that fact seemed to be a very foreign language. Because I’ve been to a lot of places where these academics say, "Ah, these people are illiterate," but yet are learning the language, learning the stories, learning the history the Indians are teaching them. I’m kind of tired of that feeling.
Rail: What is the subject of your latest film, Is the Crown at War with Us?, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival?
Obomsawin: It’s a fact that the Mi’gmaq have not had their rights recognized in this case—it has do with fishing lobsters and other kinds of fish, and in the year 2000 there was quite a war in the water because of it. The Department of Oceans and Fisheries really made a war on the water.
Rail: Has that situation been getting worse in the last 20 years, in terms of the Canadian government’s disrespect of Native rights?
Obomsawin: It depends. In certain areas you see the progress that has been made, but it was kind of a shock that in the year 2000 we were seeing this thing happening again. The Superior Court said the Mi’gmaq had treaty rights and had to be respected, and that they had rights to fish all year round, and that they also had other rights concerning their resources.
Even though the Superior Court of Canada recognized those rights, the government down the line did not. They made it very difficult, because when the Mi’gmaq got on the water to exercise those rights, the white commercial fisherman were very angry and started destroying their traps—and then the DFO (the Department of Fisheries and Oceans) came. It was really terrible.
Rail: You seem to be able to achieve a great trust with the people you are interviewing in your films. How do you build that?
Obomsawin: Well, I’ve been at it for a long time, and when I began to make films, people already knew me for the other work that I had been doing before, which was mainly singing and talking about history and telling stories all over the country and in educational settings. I had been to a lot of communities, doing the same kind of work that I do now but in a different form, so they knew who I was. They still know who I am no matter where I go.
Rail: Can you tell me about your work as a storyteller and Native educator traveling through Canadian schools in the early 1960s?
Obomsawin: A lot of it was about the history of our people and a lot of it was about animals. It’s always important to teach children through storytelling. The child can make a choice about how he wants to behave, can choose to be like such and such animal doing a good deed rather than the other animal, who is not. It was always stories to give examples about life, about how you live and how you judge what is good and bad.
Animals have sorrow just like human beings, so I was explaining the purpose of hunting, showing respect for the animal and its importance, teaching how each animal has its own song, and that the spirit of the animal expects you to respect it. Often when it wasn’t too far, I brought a lot of things. It’s like I was a walking museum, and I explained to the children about Native beliefs about animal skin and hair, and how everything must be used, so the children would develop an understanding that our people’s lives are very different from what they hear that they are.
Rail: So mostly you were talking to white children?
Obomsawin: Yes, and our children too.
Rail: When you are making films, do you think of two audiences, Native and non-Native?
Obomsawin: For all.
Rail: When you were learning about filmmaking, how did you acquire all of the technical knowledge?
Obomsawin: Well, by doing it, and by this place here [the NFB], which is the best school in the world. It was then, anyway, because you had all the experts here in one place. So if I made a mistake I would go see the top person here and say, "What have I done wrong here? Can you show me how to do it?" And this is how I learned from the best.
Rail: The NFB is not something we have the equivalent of in the States, as you know. What’s going on with the NFB these days?
Obomsawin: There are many less, many less staff filmmakers than there were before. Most people come on contract, and there are very few filmmakers on staff here.
Rail: So many of your films feature strong women engaged in resistance. Would you describe yourself as a feminist filmmaker?
Obomsawin: For me, when I see injustice, I don’t care who it is, I’m going to go there and help out or stand with whoever it is that needs something. Men, women, children.
Rail: Do you think that your films contribute to a kind of healing for Native audiences who have often been misrepresented in the mainstream media?
Obomsawin: I think so, and I think a lot of the films contribute some social changes and changing attitudes. I feel very good when people come to me and say, "Oh my God, I never knew this, and now I think so differently about Indian people."
Rail: It’s an education for audiences.
Rail: What about the next generation of Indian filmmakers? Are there people you are mentoring, or whose work you admire and support?
Obomsawin: Lots of them.
Rail: I assume it’s very different than in 1967, when you got started.
Obomsawin: Oh, yes. They don’t have to fight like I did. Since then, there have been a lot of changes. We have opened a lot of doors. It is very different.
Rail: What do you think of the success of Fast Runner and Smoke Signals and some of the feature films that Native directors are putting out?
Obomsawin: I think it’s wonderful. It’s placing some of our filmmakers equal with Hollywood filmmakers in a lot of ways, and we also have these wonderful writers. I think Smoke Signals’ story is hard in a lot of ways for Indian people, who feel very embarrassed because similar stories have happened to them. This movie puts them in a different place, by giving value to what these people went through, suggesting that they don’t have to be ashamed. Quite the contrary. I think it’s great.
Rail: What about the Canadian government? They have given you some very high honors. [In 1983 Obomsawin received the Order of Canada, the Canadian federal government’s highest honor.] How do you feel about that? Because, obviously, in making films such as Kanehsatake you have been on the other side of barricades from them.
Obomsawin: That is the incredible part of this country. There is a freedom that doesn’t exist everywhere else. Even in the NFB, which is also a government institution, the politicians cannot dictate what films are being made here, which is very beautiful. At the same time, the government—not only the rest of the people in the country—learn about what is wrong and what is right and what they are doing. So it is a very healthy place to be.