Sometimes the Carpe Diem Winnipeg website can be a gal’s best friend. I was scrolling through the events listings earlier this month when I noticed “Women Talking Film with Alanis Obomsawin”. The free event was open to all women involved or interested in film and was put on by the National Screen Institute (NSI) and Winnipeg Film Group as part of the “Gimme Some Truth” documentary film festival at Cinematheque.
I didn’t think I’d get in as their Facebook site noted they wanted to keep it an intimate event with 40 or less attendees. It wasn’t a love of her work that had me out the door without delay as I’d never actually seen anything she’d done.
I’m not up on filmmakers and hadn’t seen a documentary in a while. Maybe it was a holdover from my long ago brief foray in film as a props assistant/sculptor that drew me to the event.
Yes! I was in. One of the lucky few attendees. Not that there was a lineup, there wasn’t actually. I felt the same sense of anticipation in the Black Lodge Studio (room 304 – 100 Arthur Street) that I get before the start of a play.
Snacks and coffee and tea were set out for us all which was a friendly coffee klatchish touch. Instead of reading the program while wondering “Who WAS Obomsawin?,” I found a seat and just observed everyone. Were all these women filmmakers?
The petite women of an indeterminate age sitting at the back stood out with her long dark hair, iridescent striped maxi dress, beautiful carved native silver jewellery and glamorous manicure.
I didn’t know that she was in fact celebrated documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin until she was introduced. Everyone hushed respectfully and I realized that she is a BIG deal in Canadian filmmaking.
In a brief summary by Elise Swerhone from NSI, I learned that Alanis Obomsawin has made 50 films for the NFB. That she was here for the Manitoba premiere of her latest film called “Our People Will Be Healed” and lives in Montreal. And that after being born in 1932, she lived on a small Abenaki reserve outside Montreal before moving to Trois-Rivières at the age of nine.
Alanis (or Mademoiselle Alanis as she’s popularly known in Quebec) spoke in a strong voice with more than a hint of a French accent. Her forceful directness and sense of fun belied her age as she matter of factly recounted the remarkable, true story of her life.
Born in 1932. Hmm that would make her 85 years old. And she’s still making documentaries!!
She talked about her idyllic childhood filled with simple things like listening to her dad tell stories at night by the light of an oil lamp, watching her grannie bake, the smell of sweetgrass and lots of singing. The Odonak Reserve was a happy place for her and her family.
Things changed when they moved to Trois-Rivières. As the only native kid in her new school she was bullied and beaten up continually. She recounted that she realized with horror that the school textbooks were teaching that Indians, thus her, were dirty savages who scalped people. And that their language was Satan’s language.
She fought back and it became her life mission to reframe and celebrate her culture so other Natives felt that their culture counted, that they were as important as everyone else. More than anything she wants others to hear them tell their own stories.
No one blazed a path for her. In a time when the Indian Act said that no more than three Indians could gather together at one time so potlatches and ceremonies were outlawed, a time when Natives didn’t have the vote, when Indians who wanted to attend university had to “sell their rights” usually for very little money and were shunned by their people afterwards; she became first a singer-songwriter then a filmmaker.
Fluent in English as well as French and Abenaki due to a couple of years in Florida spent looking after kids and modeling; she started singing with the Boy Scouts. She would accompany groups of them on trips into the countryside and sing songs while talking about Indigenous peoples connection to the land.
The Scouts were happy to have her tour with them as she was popular wherever they went. Over and over again she corrected peoples misconceptions of Native people.
She was soon in demand across the country and sang at hundreds of schools, penitentiaries, and residential schools.
“I found the residential schools really tough. I would always tuck in the youngest kids, the five years olds and sing to them even though the staff often didn’t want me to,” she said. “I wanted them to hear different stories than the ones they were told,” she added.
She may have been popular but back then Native kids on the Odonak Reserve were still being taunted with names like “Savage”, “dirty Indian”…and weren’t allowed to swim in a nearby community’s pool. ALWAYS fighting any injustice she saw, Obomsawin made up her mind to build them a pool. And she did, struggling to raise the money through donations, concerts and lectures.
It took grit and determination both of which she has in spades and it brought her to the attention of a young filmmaker named Ron Kelly who filmed her efforts and showcased her as a young Abenaki singer with a passion for Native rights for a half hour CBC documentary.
The trajectory of her life changed when the NFB hired her as an advisor to Indigenous films. Being Alanis, she wanted more and in time began making her own documentaries about Indigenous issues. “I was so happy doing what I was doing, it was magic,” she recalled.
The first one was a short animation called, “Christmas at Moose Factory”. It’s a wonderful study of Christmas in this Cree village on James Bay done entirely through Indigenous kids drawings. Sounds of dogs barking, wind whistling and kids playing, place you right in the scene and the kids drawings are adorable when paired with their candid comments about their lives. In 1971 it must’ve been daring as it still works very well today and is quietly profound.
She went on to film many historical incidents involving Indigenous people and not always without risk to herself. During the Oka Crisis she spent 70 days lying behind the barbed wire while filming. (You can view the result as a box set of four DVD’s available from the NFB.)
“How did you get the subjects to be so at ease around the camera?” someone familiar with her work asked.
“The story always comes first,” was her quick reply. “I spend hours just talking with a person before I even turn the camera on.”
She went even further, “To me the story is everything, I think this comes from all the hours I spent listening to my dad tell stories at night under the glow of the oil lamp.”
As a writer, I could only agree with the importance of story telling. Unlike many filmmakers, she doesn’t start with a premise and film scenes that support it but lets peoples’ lives come to life through their own stories.
“Tell me about yourself” could lead to an interview of hours. As she said, “The best gift you can give to everyone is time, when you’re really listening to someone talk, all of a sudden they feel comfortable.” She added, “I don’t come with a camera until I understand the story real well.”
“Mother of Many Children”, “Walker”, “Incident at Restigouche”, “No Address”, “Rocks at Whiskey Trench”, “Our Nationhood” … So, many, many documentaries which have garnered prizes and awards internationally and at home.
As she matter of factly listed the many times she had to butt up against racism within the NFB and elsewhere, to keep filming I could only wish I had a tenth of her audaciousness. She never let racism or naysayers distract her but just kept on keeping on at what she was good at.
I watched the Winnipeg premiere of “Our People Will be Healed” and clapped as hard as everyone else at the end. There’s no drama in the film, just kids learning happily in English and Cree. It’s a beautiful, quiet film about a wonderful new school built at Norway House Cree Nation where the kids are thriving.
The school is named in the memory of Helen Betty Osborne, a young Cree woman from the community who was murdered in 1971 at only 19. A relative from the same family was also murdered and one is missing.
You see how the violence has affected the community but you also see so much caring. Scenes show the kids precociously playing the violin en masse and working on experiments in a state-of-the-art fully equipped science lab. They’re also being taught how to live off the land and are shown on a camping trip with an Elder.
It’s normal in her films to have the kids front and centre and many beautiful natural scenes (according to my research after the fact). It was different than anything I’d seen before but it was beautiful and I “got it” which was a relief.
Thank you once again CNC for yet another opportunity to discover something amazing I’d never have gone to if I wasn’t writing an article. It happens so often. And when else do you get the opportunity to really dig in and do research once you’ve left the educational system?
In this case, I didn’t have to dig far as 25 of her documentaries are on nfb.ca and you can click and watch for free. It’s something I plan to do as her films are refreshingly honest and a fascinating cultural and historical record.
I occasionally mention that I used to work in the film industry as I think it makes me sound (more) interesting which is probably why I wanted to work in the props department in the first place. And I did, for a while. First for a non-union production company for a few months where we made really cool things for a talented boss who treated us like people. And then came my high paying IATSE stint which ended badly with me crying in the washroom when I was cut.
Pre-production can be a dog-eat-dog world when you’re a permittee. I do miss the huge paycheques the likes of which I’ve never seen since. Outrageously large paycheques for doing not very much at all.
Correction #1: sometimes we worked really hard and that felt good but often what we did wasn’t used. Correction #2: I got involved in props because I’d always been fascinated by peoples creativity while turning something mundane into something completely different through artistry.
Props was tough for me even under a great boss. Everything was new; techniques, processes – just everything. And nothing’s routine as once you’ve made one object you’re working on something completely different and all this while working as a team. As an introvert I was out of my depth. IATSE was worse as each permittee was competing for hours and I just wasn’t tough enough.
Many of my old insecurities came flooding back when I was sitting in a roomful of women who had made it in the film industry. As a writer it’s just me and my laptop (and my editor of course and the wonderful librarians on the 4th floor of the Millennium branch of the library who help me when my computer skills let me down – which is often).
After Obomsawin finished speaking to us, the conversation turned to male crews versus female crews. Was it really necessary to work on an all female crew? Some women thought it was. Most felt that it was fine to work with guys but you had to be sure you were tough enough to be taken seriously.
Obomsawin sat and listened without interjecting much. As difficult as it can occasionally be for women in film, how much tougher it must’ve been for her. In later years she could’ve made her films under the protective umbrella of Studio D which was the female documentary filmamkers arm of the NFB but she refused as she felt her films were about both men and women.
She did tell us that when she’d caught a very good cameraman insulting people under him, “I fired him so fast he didn’t believe me.” For her it is always about respecting each other as people.
The Winnipeg film Group is trying to build female capacity in the film industry here. They are going to be running more technical courses for women and the “Women’s Film and Video Network” meets once a month. Check their Facebook page for up to date meetup times.