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Few artists in recent years have influenced the way we think about Native Americans as much as documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. In several dozen of her films, which have won widespread critical acclaim at festivals all around the world, she re-evaluates Canadian national mythology and highlights the role that descendants of the Inuit, Cree, Métis, Mi’kmaq, Mohawks, or Ojibwe people play in it.
Obomsawin's ancestors were the Abenaki, and it was on Abenaki territory in New England where she was born in August 1932. From the age of six months, she grew up in the Odanak Reserve in Quebec, a closed community where she was constantly exposed to the legacy of Native American tribes. She became familiar with their songs, legends, and traditions, but her childhood was far from ideal. Four of her siblings died at an early age while her father suffered from tuberculosis for many years. After she started attending public school, intolerance and racist remarks from her classmates and teachers became an everyday part of her life. With every new limitation she faced as a result of her heritage, she grew stronger and more defiant against humiliation and unfair treatment from authorities. Her lifelong struggle for social justice would soon manifest as a result.
Obomsawin first raised awareness of the indigenous people of Canada as a worker for the community education centre. She travelled around the country and introduced young people to the importance of indigenous culture and history. Her songs, poems, and stories, which she used to try get the public in North America and Europe actively involved, also had an educational dimension to it. She has performed at universities, museums, and prisons in order to highlight systemic racism and the need for reform. In 1965, the television film Alanis was made about her, which described her efforts of staging a charity concert to help raise money for the construction of a swimming pool at the Odanak Reserve. The reason she started the initiative was because children from the reservation were not allowed to use white people’s sports facilities due to segregation. The documentary caught the attention of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), a leading Canadian film institution where Obomsawin was later employed as a consultant on indigenous issues. Joining the NFB in 1967 marked the beginning of her film career.
Obomsawin built on the legacy of the pioneer of documentary film John Grierson, whom she met in the early 1970s. Like him, she saw film as a means of liberation and emancipation. They believed that if people whose voices are silenced and neglected saw a true representation of their own life experiences, then they would begin to think differently about their social status and play a more active role in fighting for higher living standards. All of her films take on a perceptive and slow-paced approach in exploring the various aspects of indigenous life, culture, and customs. Although her films are predominantly observational in nature, they do not shy away from getting up close and personal and can be characterised as both intimate and direct. The audience is placed right in the middle of all the action, becoming active participants. They are also addressed directly by the director's calm and personable commentary.
Alanis Obomsawin's first film was the short documentary Christmas at Moose Factory (1971), which uses children's drawings to evoke life in an isolated community in northern Canada. The author also gave her social actors room for self-expression in her later films, which, in addition to Grierson's social activism, are based on the oral-historical tradition. Her feature debut Mother of Many Children (1977) was filmed during a trip to Canada and documented the role women play in preserving and spreading awareness of Native American traditions. In 1983, she was honoured with the highest civilian award, the Order of Canada, for her activities. A year later, she filmed Incident at Restigouche, which showcased the clash between Miꞌkmaq fishermen and Ontario police after the government placed restrictions on salmon fishing. In other films, Obomsawin also focused on the conflict between the indigenous people and the institutions interfering with their lives. The documentary portrait Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986) was based on the diary of a young Métis man who was separated from his parents and spent his entire childhood in foster care and orphanages. Years of abuse and humiliation led him to commit suicide at the age of seventeen. This story of prejudice and a dysfunctional childcare system used quotes from Richard's diaries, interviews, and fictional sequences.
A poignant indictment of the system is also what characterises the groundbreaking film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), which was screened and won widespread critical acclaim at a number of international film festivals. The name refers to a reservation located near Montreal. The local Mohawks were being forced out of their territory in 1990 due to the construction of a new housing development and the expansion of a nearby golf course. However, they decided to fight back and defend their land, which had been their home for as long as they could remember. For more than two months, they resisted pressure from the police and the army, and the situation escalated into a series of violent conflicts. The whole time, Obomsawin filmed from both sides of the barricades. She edited hundreds of hours of footage and juxtaposed it in a historical context to demonstrate that the dispute had been going on for centuries when the Canadian government gradually stole most of the Mohawk people’s land. She later depicted the same course of events and consequences of the conflict in a different light with the films My Name Is Kahentiiosta (1995), Sfudwrench: Kanawake Man (1997) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000).
Eight years later, her extensive documentary film We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016) was made, in which the filmmaker captured the course of the trial by the federal government. Organisations advocating for the interests of the First Nations had accused the government of discriminatory treatment against children living on reservations. Similarly, other Obomsawin films from recent years, including The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013), and her 50th directorial work Our People Will Be Healed (2017), testify to the unequal conditions resulting from a long-term disregard for the needs and rights of this significant population in Canadian society.
For nearly fifty years now, Alanis Obomsawin has been using her engaging and openly political films to call out against systemic racism, double standards, the occupying of sacred territories, and the Canadian government's involvement in human rights abuses. She continues to help ensure that these issues are not kept on the back burner and that the voices of Canada’s indigenous people can be heard.
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