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Spring 2005; p. 36-41
Alanis Obomsawin - Interview by Micol Marotti
A Conversation with Alanis Obomsawin
Alanis Obomsawin is a native of the Abenaki Indian Nation. She
was born on in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Obomsawin learned the oral
history and songs of her ancestors before she was nine years old,
while living on a reservation at Odanak in the Province of Quebec.
The Canadian Film Board (CFB) hired Obomsawin in 1965 as a consultant
for a documentary about the native people in Standing Buffalo.
Obomsawin directed her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory,
in 1971. She has subsequently written, directed, produced and
occasionally composed music for more than 20 non-fiction films
about Canada's native Indians. Obomsawin is called Ko-li-la-wato
by her people. It translates to "someone who makes us happy."
QUESTION: Let's begin by talking about where you were
born and raised.
OBOMSAWIN: I was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, which
was once the territory of the Abenaki Nation. When I was six months
old my mother took me to Odanak in the Province of Quebec, where
I was raised on a very small reservation until I was nine years
old. I learned my nation's history through stories and songs.
My teacher was my mother's cousin. We were the only native family
and I spoke very little French or English. As I grew older, I
became determined to see that our history was taught at all Canadian
QUESTION: Please tell us about the history of your people.
OBOMSAWIN: Abenaki means people of the dawn or the East
where the sun comes up. Originally, there were many groups of
our people spread across what is now called New England and parts
of Quebec province. At one time, we were very numerous. During
my days on the reserve, there were 1,800 registered members, but
there are only about 400 people living on there today. A lot of
the original land has been lost. It's only about one mile long
and maybe two miles wide today.
QUESTION: What led you into filmmaking?
OBOMSAWIN: I decided I was going to fight for changes
in the educational system to include our history, but I didn't
know how to do it. I began to sing at parties for friends and
was invited to perform at a folk festival in New York City in
1960. That created an opportunity for me to tour elementary and
high schools and universities in Canada, and also prisons. I was
singing songs and telling stories about our history.
During the early 1960s, Ron Kelly made a short film (Alanis)
about my work. It appeared on CBC, the government run television
network in Canada. In 1967, Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall, who were
producers for the National Film Board, saw the film and asked
to meet with me. I was given a contract to consult on a film.
That led to opportunities to write and direct 16 mm films for
CBC. My first film was Christmas at Moose Factory. It was
a study of life in a small Native community based on children's
drawings. That was in 1967. I've produced, written and directed
more than 20 films.
QUESTION: Where did your ideas for new films come from?
OBOMSAWIN: Usually, it begins when I hear about an injustice
on a reserve.
QUESTION: How were you received by your own people in
OBOMSAWIN: I was pretty much alone at the beginning. It
was difficult in a lot of ways. The old people were concerned
that because we were putting their oral stories into another form,
I was taking their spirit away. They thought it would damage or
even kill the oral tradition. But, I realized that many children
were no longer listening to the stories of their history told
by their elders. They sat around and watched television instead.
I was afraid that the old people would die and leave nothing behind.
I felt we had to preserve the history of our nations. Eventually,
the older people became more comfortable with what I was doing,
but it took a while. I believe that most of our people now realize
the value of these films. They aren't just for the short term.
They will be there for future generations. I feel very fortunate
to have been somehow chosen to do this work. One of the reasons
why I still shoot on film is because of my feelings about preserving
the history. I realize that right now film is the only true way
we can preserve our stories.
QUESTION: Unfortunately, many people still aren't sensitive
to that issue.
OBOMSAWIN: During the 1970s, I made six films as a co-production
with the CBC. They were half hour films that were shown on television
in classrooms. They finished in video format. The color is gone.
It's awful. The people of the next generation will not see those
films the way we finished them. That part of our history is lost.
QUESTION: Do you have a regular film crew, which collaborates
OBOMSAWIN: Yes. I've worked with two wonderful cameramen.
One of them worked with me from the beginning until he passed
away about five years ago. His name was Roger Rochat. He was very
dear to me. Phillipe Amiguet has worked with me on all the films
I made since Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance in 1990
about an uprising in Kanehsatake and Oka against injustices. We
have made three other films on that subject alone. One was My
Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), which is about a young native
woman who was arrested after a 78-day standoff. A couple of years
later, we made Spudwrench, about Randy Horne, a steel worker
from Kahnawake. We made the fourth film in that series, Rocks
at Whiskey Trench, in 2000.
QUESTION: Did you have any formal training?
OBOMSAWIN: When I began, all I had was a vision for what
had to be done. I quickly realized that film was an incredibly
powerful way for our people to be heard. They aren't just for
the short term. They will be there for future generations. I feel
very fortunate to have been somehow chosen by the Canadian Film
Board to do this work. To answer your question, my formal training
was making films.
QUESTION: How about the original film and audio that the
images and sound were recorded? Are they properly archived for
OBOMSAWIN: They are in the archives at the National Film
Board of Canada. I think it is one of the best places in the world
to preserve our heritage.
QUESTION: Are they archiving all the outtakes or just
the final cuts?
OBOMSAWIN: They have all of my films and the outtakes.
I think it must be more than a million feet of film, and it is
all properly archived.
QUESTION: Many of your films are records of oral histories,
but some of them are based on events that are happening in current
OBOMSAWIN: When I'm documenting something that is happening
in the present, it is always related to the history of our Nations.
That is always part of the story.
QUESTION: Can you give us an example?
OBOMSAWIN: I made a film called Is the Crown At War
With Us? in the year 2000. It documented a battle between
a particular community and the government, which was restricting
their traditional right to fish and harvest lobsters. In 1999,
the Superior Court in Canada ruled that the Mi'gmaq people had
valid rights that had to be respected based on the treaty of 1752.
The treaty gave them the right to hunt and fish any time of the
year. It was necessary for their survival. A lot of commercial
fishermen were angry about that ruling. That resulted in a conflict.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Department of Fisheries
confiscated the traps that the native fishermen had in the water.
Commercial fishermen were also grabbing their traps and destroying
the nets inside. They also burned people's houses. It was terrible.
The film documents current events along with the oral history
of the native people.
QUESTION: What has your work taught you?
OBOMSAWIN: My work teaches me new things every day. Every
time I make a film about something or interview someone, I am
fascinated to hear how individuals express themselves. A lot of
it is poetry to me. People have so much to say. You just have
to listen, ask questions and give them time to tell their stories.
I think it's a gift for me to hear them talk. I have spoken with
so many people for all these years, and yet each time, I'm excited
to hear another person's story. I always feel richer afterwards.
QUESTION: Do new filmmakers come to you for advice?
OBOMSAWIN: Yes. I teach master classes just about everywhere
in Canada. A lot of people who are just starting out send me their
films and videos. I don't know if I can help everyone, but I always
answer. I always tell young people that when they decide they
are going to make a documentary, they better begin by thinking
about why they are doing it. I can always tell when a film is
self-serving. I advise young filmmakers to ask themselves if their
stories serve the subject. I advice them to really listen to the
people who are in their films. If you decide to make a documentary,
you can't stop once you hear what you want to hear. You can't
say, I've heard enough. You have to listen to people tell their
stories, because it's their story. For me that's the magic.
QUESTION: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that
you are still producing your documentaries on 16 mm film. Can
you tell us why?
OBOMSAWIN: I told you earlier that we are making films
to preserve the stories for future generations. The other part
of the answer is that the colors are truer and there is more of
a feeling of depth. Stories told on film feel so much more profound.
QUESTION: Can you give us an example?
OBOMSAWIN: We were shooting a film recently on a mountain
that is sacred to our people. It was difficult, because there
were no paths. We carried the equipment to an altitude of 1,600
feet until we found the place where we wanted to film. On the
way down, I was talking to a local man who asked if I saw the
beaver dam? I said, no, and he told me that there were three dams
and took us to see them. One of them was just unbelievable. I've
seen a lot of beaver dams, but I've never one like that big. It
was perfect. We waited, but no beavers came, so we decided to
come back at 4 p.m. the next day. We came back and waited very
quietly until the beavers came when it was nearly dark. They must
have been almost three feet long. We didn't know where or when
they were going to come. It happened very quickly. We focussed
and grabbed at least seven very good shots. It was nearly dark,
but they are beautiful. I'm happy we have it on film.
QUESTION: What will you do with that film?
OBOMSAWIN: It will be part of a new documentary that we
are making. It's a story for children told through animals. We
had 14 bear masks made by hand, along with beautiful blankets
and moccasins with symbols of the Abenaki. We were shooting in
the fall, so the trees had the richest colors. We had a woman
tell a story about the history of her Nation. She was surrounded
by the kids, who are wearing the different masks and blankets,
listening to her. Afterwards, I planned to interview some of the
children to see what they thought. I asked, who would like to
speak? A very young girl volunteered. She was six and a half years
old and she was incredible. We are finishing that film now.
QUESTION: How are your films seen?
OBOMSAWIN: We now have our own television channel, the
Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) in Canada. It took
a long time to get the license. We have been on the air for almost
five years. We are training and employing a lot of people, and
we are showing a lot of films and videos that aboriginal people
are making about aboriginal people. That is a big step forward.
QUESTION: How are your films seen by people outside of
OBOMSAWIN: The National Film Board distributes them worldwide.
QUESTION: We understand that you are also worked with
OBOMSAWIN: I am working with them on films that they are
QUESTION: This is another philosophical question. Filmmaking
is a very young art form. It is only about 110 years old. How
do you think they have affected society?
OBOMSAWIN: I think film has a lot of power to influence
people. I feel very fortunate that I was given an opportunity
by the National Film Board of Canada. They created a place for
me to help my people tell their stories. I feel that it is up
to us as documentary filmmakers to tell our stories for both the
present and future generations.
Fotográficos: Alanis Obomsawin -
gentileza del realizador