A member of the Abenaki Nation, Alanis Obomsawin is one of Canada’s most distinguished filmmakers with a legendary career that spans over five decades. She is a director and producer at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) where she began making films, chronicling the hopes and struggles of Indigenous Peoples in their historic fight for their rights, since 1967.
A true trailblazer in women’s cinema, Obomsawin has carved a path forward for Indigenous Peoples in Canada, championing Indigenous storytelling and giving a voice to those who were once silenced. She is an inspiration for generations of Indigenous creatives and has received more than 40 lifetime and career accolades, as well as 13 honorary degrees for her distinguished filmmaking and social activism, including 15 awards for her 1993 documentary on the 1990 Oka Crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Most recently, Obomsawin was presented with the Career Achievement Award in recognition of her extraordinary work and significant impact on the screen-based industries by the Banff World Media Festival. She also received the Edward MacDowell Medal, recognizing individuals who have made significant cultural contributions—the first woman filmmaker to be awarded the Medal in its 63-year history.
Just last spring she was honoured with a tribute in the Senate of Canada. Despite a demanding filmmaking career, Obomsawin’s creativity expands well beyond the screen. Before working with the NFB, Obomsawin started her career as a singer, writer and storyteller, touring Canada, the United States and Europe and performing for many humanitarian causes. For over four decades, she has also worked as an engraver and print-maker, with exhibitions in Canada and Europe, her artwork often portrays Mother and child imagery as well as inspiration from her dreams with animal spirits and historical events. A multidisciplinary artist, Obomsawin has shown incredible leadership, resilience and determination throughout her esteemed career. Her unwavering commitment to Indigenous youth and children is reflected in much of her work and continues to be her motivation to create and educate at 91 years old. The National Film Board of Canada is pleased to share the release of Alanis Obomsawin: A Legacy, a DVD box set that includes 12 disks—all curated by Obomsawin herself—with seven never-before-seen bonuses and world premieres of four short films. SAY Magazine also had the honour of interviewing Obomsawin following the official launch of this most spectacular project. See page 19 for the interview.
“Everybody has a story and everybody has a life. When people talk to me, I listen, sometimes for hours before I come with a camera, and for me, that is very sacred.”
~ Alanis Obomsawin
SAY: Congratulations on the release of your long-anticipated box set. How do you feel about the completion of such a project?
Obomsawin: We’ve been working on this for three years. It’s been a lot of work because there are 21 films in total—some of them are bonuses—and they all had to be in English and French, and some of them are in Cree. It’s been a big job, because of all the details and the many people who contributed and helped to finish it in time for a November release.
SAY: What does it mean to you to have this box set now available for everyone to experience?
Obomsawin: I have covered a lot of things over the years, but my main interest is education, and it makes me very happy to know that this box set is going to go to a lot of learning places.
Whatever I make, whatever I do, I’m always thinking about the education piece—it’s more than information, it’s education for our people, and not just our people, but everybody in the country, to learn what the real history of Indigenous Peoples is. There are also a lot of bonuses in this set, and brand new never seen before films. For anybody interested in what Canada’s history is,
we’ve added more new footage to films like Trick or Treaty. How rich will it be for teachers to have this set on hand, to teach and to discuss? It’s going to be wonderful. I feel very excited about that.
SAY: What inspired your documentary/filmmaking career? How did you start this journey?
Obomsawin: I knew nothing about filmmaking when I started. I got into it because something just clicked as a young adult. When I was a child, I went through a horrible time in my life because of the educational system. Other children would beat me up all the time and I realized it was from the fact that the teacher was teaching the history of Canada in a very false way, and with a lot of hate towards our people. When I realized this, I felt that children needed to hear another story, not hear a false one to create hate towards me and what I represent. It took me years, but I felt that we had to tell our own story—to hear another way of talking about the Indigenous Peoples of this country. For a long time, I did this through singing and storytelling. In the ‘60s, I toured a lot of residential and regular schools. I also toured prisons. I went all over the place. At one point, I was doing a campaign to build a swimming pool in my community because our children were not welcome in the swimming pool next door. Ron Kelly, who was a filmmaker at the time, made a film about my campaign which became a portrait on CBC-TV’s Telescope series.
SAY: Is that how you began working with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)?
Obomsawin: Yes. I knew nothing about the NFB or filmmaking, but after seeing the film about my campaign the NFB hired me to be a consultant for a particular film. Once it was completed I said I would never do it again because I was very worried I would be blamed if others didn’t like the film. That changed when I came across a studio here in Montreal called Multimedia that created projects for the classroom—I thought I was in paradise. I’ve been with the NFB ever since. That was 1967.
SAY: Can you talk about your commitment to storytelling and educating others, especially children and youth?
Obomsawin: Everybody has a story and everybody has a life. When people talk to me, I listen, sometimes for hours before I come with a camera, and for me, that is very sacred. Children don’t grow up hating you. If they learn the real story, they learn to know and respect our people. It’s very powerful to be in a teaching place, and this is why I’ve done what I’ve done, and why I’m still doing it at 91 years old. It’s all about teaching the real history of this country and what it was for so many generations. Educational institutions were using books to talk about us, to teach a false history. And so many of us have been working very hard to change that. When I went to school, it was horrible and I just didn’t want, and don’t want, other children to go through that. I want them to know the truth and also hear the voices of our people talking about themselves because they are the ones who know what it was like. It’s not somebody writing about us and interpreting our stories.
SAY: You’ve had an incredible career, directing over 65 films to date. What continues to inspire you?
Obomsawin: I still get excited because I have fought so hard to get these things done. It wasn’t easy at all. There was a lot of prejudice and it was very difficult. It’s not as difficult now because there’s been so much change and I feel very lucky to have lived this long and to have seen the difference. People are respected now. It’s not a war like before to make sure others hear the real story. I feel that there’s success there. I’m also very thankful that I was able to get support from the National Film Board. It wasn’t always easy, but they have supported me and in turn, we’ve created a better road for young filmmakers to create and work in this industry. Young people are eager and want to hear about all the different nations, and a lot of them are making videos. I’m very impressed by the responsibility they’ve taken on—it’s a very exciting time. Everything is possible and I feel very good about that.
“As Indigenous Peoples, we need to know our own history, which was kept hidden from us for so long. Education, and the well-being of our children, has always been at the heart of what I try to do. I chose these films for this box set because I think that together they offer a way to appreciate how far we have come as Indigenous Peoples and the great sacrifices that we have
had to make during that struggle. Today I am also more hopeful than ever because of what our young people are doing, and I hope that people who watch these DVDs also come away with a sense of that hope, too.”
~ Alanis Obomsawin
Photography and biography of Alanis Obomsawin courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.