Aboriginal filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin believes there is one basic rule for all works of art.
“For me, the rule is called love,” the 79-year-old told a group of artists of various disciplines on May 9. “I think what drives us is the love we have, of the land, of the people, of the traditions, the way people speak. It brings people home.”
The Abenaki documentary filmmaker believes that artists are the voice of the country.
“Art is really an incredible way to give a message,” she said. “It’s a voice that, even if you are doing a flower with beads or embroidering, it’s a message.”
Obomsawin was in Thunder Bay as the keynote speaker during the Flowering Moon Gathering, an event organized by the Ontario Art Council that brought artists in northwestern Ontario together to share and talk about their crafts.
Born in 1932, Obomsawin grew up on the Odanak reserve in Quebec before moving to Trois-Riveres with her family.
By the 1960’s, Obomsawin was a professional singer. She debuted in New York City and went on to tour Canada, the United States and Europe for humanitarian causes in universities, museums, prisons and art centres.
She emerged as an activist for the societal and political challenges First Nations people faced in the 60s.
During the gathering in Thunder Bay, Obomsawin recounted a time she was researching at an archive in Ottawa and wanted to copy some documents she had gathered for her research. The clerk for Indian Affairs, noting her Native background, told her they “lost” the files.
Frustrated, Obomsawin went to the office of Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretian.
She talked to his assistant, who said Chretian was gone and would not be back for hours.
“You see that chair there?” Obomsawin told the assistant. “I’m sitting there until he comes.”
Obomsawin waited for hours until Chretian arrived around 7 p.m.
“By then, I was like a bomb,” she said, and the artists laughed. She told Chretian the story and he asked if she could still go back. She said yes, and he told her to go back the next day to get the files.
The clerk threw the files to her when she returned the next day.
“And I said, ‘Gee, you must’ve worked all night to find the files,’” Obomsawin said.
Obomsawin got into the film industry after CBC producers noticed her campaign to have a swimming pool built in her community. She was brought into the National Film Board (NFB) in 1967 as an advisor on a film about Aboriginal people.
She started directing her own films, the first being Christmas in Moose Factory (1971), a 14-minute documentary on the lives of children inside the Horden Hall residential school.
Obomsawin said she had wanted to go to an isolated community to capture the lives in children in residential schools and looked at a map.
“I chose Moose Factory by chance,” she told Wawatay News, adding with a laugh: “I think I liked the name.”
During the Christmas holidays for four years, Obomsawin spent time with the children, singing to them and telling stories before they slept.
“Then eventually, I wanted them to tell me their stories,” she said. “So I taped them talking about their lives and then I had them do a drawing about it.”
Obomsawin said she loved hearing their voices, especially as they spoke English with a “very particular” accent.
“So it’s really great to look at this film and hear the children and their voices,” she said.
“I loved that film. I don’t feel that I’ve missed anything because I got very close to the children.”
Obomsawin went to on produce 35 more documentaries in a career that spans 40 years.
Her most famous film is Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a 119-minute documentary that chronicled the Oka Crisis in 1990, when a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka erupted into an armed standoff between the First Nation and Canadian military.
Obomsawin said on July 11 that year, she was driving to a shoot for another project when she heard about the shootout at Oka on the news.
“I was shocked and so instead of going to my work, I went there right away,” she said. “I told the (NFB) that I’m changing my production. I have to go there and document this from the inside.”
Obomsawin said she thought the event would last the weekend but it lasted 78 days.
“And I was there the whole time,” she said.
By that time, Obsansowin had developed her reputation as an Aboriginal filmmaker and had friends in the community.
“Everyone knew who I was and I think everyone was happy I was there,” she said.
She said it was not easy to document the event, especially since she hated guns.
“The warriors had guns, the army had guns, the police had guns, there were guns everywhere and I thought, Wooo, this is going to be hard,” she said.
Obomsawin’s highlight of the project was being with the people of Kanehsatake.
“For me, it was the courage the warriors showed to stay ‘til the end, and the women were incredible,” she said.
Obomsawin recently worked on two films in Attawapiskat, one about the housing situation in the community that will be released soon. The other is still in production.
Obomsawin, who turns 80 in August, has earned numerous awards and accolades over her career.
Along with receiving the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2001 and being an Officer for the Order of Canada, Obomsawin is the subject of one of the first-ever book on Native filmmakers called Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker by Randolph Lewis.
Obomsawin credits the storytelling of Elders when she was young as a way she developed “the art of listening,” as she would lay and listen at night by an oil lamp in the days before her community had electricity and running water.
“To this day, I never start with filming people,” she said of her documentary projects. “When I go and see them, I bring a tape recorder and just listen for hours.”
She said emerging filmmakers have difficulty understanding this concept when starting out.
“It’s very difficult to do an interview and film at the same time without being distracted yourself, wondering: is the camera correct? And the person being filmed: is my hair correct?”
“All those things fade away if you do just sound, which means, you only hear the voice. And if you really listen, you’ll fall in love with that voice.”
Obomsawin told the artists that Aboriginal people in Canada have come a long way and she was glad to be able to take part in the gathering.
“Just hearing the voice of anyone here moves me,” she said. “I never get tired of listening to people.”
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