In honour of Alanis Obomsawin's Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective at the 2009 Hot Docs festival, we've put together a playlist of some of her most influential and powerful work. We also did a quick Q&A with the celebrated filmmaker:
Q: What prompted you to become a filmmaker?
A: It wasn't my idea. I didn't know anything about filmmaking. I was touring (as a singer) in schools, universities, concert halls, prisons, etc. My main interest was children and education and I was really working hard to try to influence changes in terms of the history in the schools. Somebody made a film on what I was doing, and producers from the Board saw it and invited me here. And because my interest was education, they suggested I start doing film strips for classrooms. I had to raise money for it and the Board would match what I would raise. That's how I started here, doing these educational kits. It was very important to us because it was the first time we had a professional product in the classroom for teaching and it was really the voice of our people.
I had no formal training. The National Film Board was really the best school at the time.
Q: Who, or what, has influenced you the most in your career?
A: The greatest influence is my own people and their stories. I've always been very passionate about listening to them and helping them to have a voice.
Q: What are your thoughts on Aboriginal filmmaking today? Do you think these films are being used effectively as a tool for social change?
A: A lot of young people are working in film now, and there's a lot going on in the communities and in the cities. And there's APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), which shows everyone's work if it's broadcast quality. It's a very exciting time.
Just the fact that APTN exists, and that Aboriginal films air on other channels, proves that storytelling is very much out there. And it does create change. More and more people are watching APTN, even those who are not necessarily First Nations people. They learn so much by watching these different stories. It's a way of educating.
Q: How do you decide what your next project will be?
A: It's never the same way twice. I'm serving a particular community and/or issue. In the past, there were urgencies due to things that were happening in the world (e.g.: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance). A lot of my films came about that way. For the topics that I chose to cover, the working procedure was different.
Q: Have you always felt well supported by the NFB?
A: At first it was very difficult, and I understand I was an Indian and there were people here who felt they were experts on Indian people. It was very difficult, even though I had been invited here. But I felt the work was more important than the way some people treated me. I stayed and made sure I finished what I started.
Over the years, things changed. Today it's very different. I don't have these kinds of problems.