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.
This was a very special film for me. When I learned of Richard's death, I went to visit the last set of foster parents he'd had. I wasn't thinking of making the film at the time. I went as if I were a relation of Richard's. I didn't want them to regret the fact that they had taken him as a foster child. It was to converse with them in terms of our situation and I learned that they didn't know anything about First Nations people and I felt very bad for them. I went mainly to tell them about our situation and our children who are in need of parents. It was out of this visit that the film was born.
I was back in Restigouche because there was another stand taking place concerning logging issues (this led to the film Our Nationhood) when the raids occurred in Burnt Church. When I found out about what was going on there with the Mi'gmaq fishermen, I made this film.
There were three films on the Mi'gmaq people – Incident at Restigouche, Is the Crown at war with us and Our Nationhood.
Making this film was special for me, mainly because these people are very close to my nation. There were very good relations and it was, in a way, like coming home. I think it’s because the language, traditions and cultures are the same. For this film, I interviewed the Quebec Minister of Fisheries, Lucien Lessard. I invited him to Montreal for the interview and he knew I had a lot of problems with him. Many people told him not to come, that I would make mincemeat out of him. But he came, and I admired him for that. We fought all the time, but in the end I came to understand why people voted for him. He stood his ground, and if he made a promise to his constituents, you could be sure he would do his best to keep it.
I was in my car when the shooting occurred, on my way to another film shoot. I changed directions right away. I was working on something else that I completely dropped and raced to capture the stand-off on film. People outside of Canada were shocked when they saw this movie. They couldn't imagine that something like this was taking place here. The only negative reaction came when the film was released in French in Quebec.
This was my last film on the Oka Crisis. Everyone was talking about the rock throwing that was going on, and it always bothered me that we never heard from the people in the cars. They had no voice. So I decided to give them a voice. It was only after this film was done that I felt free, that I could walk away from this subject matter.
Randy Horne, aka Spudwrench, was so badly beaten while I was filming Kanehsatake, I decided to do a film that focused on him and his experiences. There are so many Mohawks who work with steel that it was a chance to explore this whole other story while tying it to the Oka Crisis. I felt he deserved to tell his story.