Voice(s) of the People: An Interview with Alanis Obomsawin

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Image credit: National Film Board of Canada

To listen can be a powerful political act. Few filmmakers demonstrate this more than Alanis Obomsawin. Steeped in oral storytelling traditions, her world-renowned documentaries are not so much about giving voice to an issue, but allowing for the often muted voices of First Nations peoples to be heard.

A member of the Abenaki nation, Obomsawin was raised on the Odanek Reserve near Sorel, Quebec. She began her career as a singer and storyteller before being tapped by the National Film Board in 1965 as a consultant for productions concerning First Nations citizens. She directed her first short film in 1971 (Christmas at Moose Factory) before being permanently hired as an NFB staffer in 1977. Her body of work illustrates the depth and breadth of First Nations issues, including the police raids of a Mi’kmaq reserve in Quebec (Incident at Restigouche, 1984); the plight of homeless Natives living on the streets of Montreal (No Address, 1988); the tense standoff between police, the Canadian Army, and the Mohawks of Oka, Quebec (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 1993); and the Mi’kmaq’s legal battle over fishing rights in New Brunswick (Is the Crown at War with Us?, 2002). With finesse and unending patience, her films unite often disparate views to capture the nuanced lived experiences of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Obomsawin, 81, sat down with cléo during the Toronto premiere of her latest film, Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013). The film tells the story of the late teenage activist Shannen Koostachin and the Cree children of Attawapiskat, Ontario who take up her cause, fighting for improved school facilities in their community.

cléo: When you first enter a community, how do you broach the idea of filming there? Or rather, filming them? How do you build trust?

AO: I never go there with a crew at first. I go alone, with just a tape recorder. When I’m in a community somewhere, I like to know the children, I like to go to every class in the school. And then I realize that there are certain persons I should be talking to. Then I go and see them, or phone them, and I do interviews, but just recording sound. Because I find that having a crew is distracting. And I listen for hours to people. To what they want to talk about, and how they feel, and what’s happening to them. It’s time. I give a lot of time to the people I’m going to be working with. Then I transcribe this [recording] or have it transcribed, and I’ll read it many times to make sure I know the story or to see what’s missing. Then when I feel that it’s all right for me to go in with a crew, then I will. But not before.

cléo: In the case of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

AO: There wasn’t time…

cléo: Yes. It was a different sort of filmmaking, almost a form of...

AO: Guerilla filmmaking.

cléo: Yes! Or even embedded journalism in a way. How did you approach that, or what was your expectation going into that situation, having already had a certain process of filmmaking established beforehand?

AO: Well, I knew a lot of the people there. I went the day that the shooting occurred. We weren’t allowed to go into the village; you could just go as far as the police allowed you. It was very aggravating, so I started filming what they were doing, because a lot of people were trying to come in, and they would turn them back. It was very funny in a sense, because they’d say, “Stay away! stay [so many] feet away.” But they were so busy working that we were like pigeons, we would just creep in closer and closer. And they wouldn’t realize because they were so busy arguing with everybody. But once they would realize, they would start yelling at us. Not just me, there were other journalists who were trying to go in. And finally there was so much complaint, we were calling everybody we knew, and [claiming] human rights, that they decided to give us accreditation. And when the police gave us accreditation, they said, “You can only be on this one road, you’re not allowed to go to the side streets.” Of course, we went everywhere. So that’s how I got in, and we were documenting what was happening. I did a lot of interviews while I was there, but because I did not have the preparation time like I usually do, when the stand was over I stayed another two weeks, just to talk to people. Especially the ones that we had filmed that I knew, I wanted to talk to them. So I worked the opposite way. I went back in.

cléo: That moment when representatives of the Canadian Army were speaking, they seemed the most aware of the camera being there, and looking at it and suddenly being aware of their own words.

AO: Yes. Definitely.

cléo: You’ve looked back at the Oka Crisis several times in your workin My Name is KahentiiostaSpudwrench  Kahnawake Man, and Rocks at Whiskey Trench—each time going back to tell the more personal stories. But there’s still always that connection to a community within those films. Why do you think this sense of community is so vital?

AO: Because it’s a reality. Though they have different groups, they try to say that they are all together. Although at times they are, there are different thoughts happening from different people, they don’t necessarily see everything the same way. So it’s important for me to feel that, and to represent it. And once again, I’m really a listener. I listen to everything they say. And I’m always concerned about children and what’s happening to them in those moments.

cléo: I’m also struck by, whether or not this is conscious, the focus on women in these communities. Like in Kahentiiosta, and the effect that the Oka Crisis had on them, especially those that were arrested. Do you find yourself drawn to these women’s stories?

AO: It’s a natural thing. I come from a world where women are always revered, or respected. And they play a very important role. And I would say the biggest reason that we were always told—and I believe it—that the highest power is the woman who holds it, is because the woman gives life. In general, the feeling of women being put down in our world…I’m sure it’s happened, it’s happening in places, but in general the way of speaking [in our communities] is that the woman is sacred in all ways because she gives life. In the past, the women always had a say on choosing which man is going to be chief. Now everybody goes through a different system. It’s not like it used to be.

cléo: And the collective action of women is seen once again in Hi-Ho Mistahey! It’s predominantly the story of the Shannen’s Dream campaign, launched in the wake of Shannen Koostachin’s passing, but more broadly it’s about Attawapiskat.

AO: For me, or for anybody who’s watching, I always feel like they should know how it feels, what the community is like. What’s the everyday life like? So that it’s not just the surface of things or only one voice. Of course, Shannon is at the core of the story, but she came from there. How she was brought up, the way she and her sister were taught the values of life and of who they are—that was transferred to Shannon and the whole family. “Hi-Ho Mistahey,” comes from a Cree saying that the children could not say, meaning: “I love you very much.” Teachers were trying to make them say that, and the kids would say “I…O…mistay.” They continued for years when they read, they say “hi-ho mistahey.” This is the reason why I chose this. It was Cindy Blackstock [Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada] who said, “This is really, really the title.” And I thought it was right.

cléo: In this film the spirit of activism is so alive in these schoolchildren. Which, considering we live in a time of so much apathy and distraction, is remarkable.

AO: Yes, I think depending on what’s happening, not necessarily in just this community, but children of every walk of life…if you take the time to listen to them, you’d be surprised how responsible they always feel about everything. If a couple are married and are fighting and they want a divorce, the children always feel responsible, always think it’s their fault. I always find it fascinating what they imagine and what they do to try and influence different things. I love to listen to people, and I adore listening to children. I just think it’s so special.

cléo: How do they react to being filmed?

AO: Often, they don’t know unless I’m specifically interviewing them. I like to watch when they don’t know, to watch their gestures and to hear what they say.

cléo: Can you speak about any of the projects you’re working on right now?

AO: I can’t really speak about much, because it’s always risky to talk about it too early. I have three more films that I am working on, and they all have a connection.

cléo: I wonder if we could take a step away from filmmaking for a moment. Over 20 years have passed since the Oka Crisis, but the events that recently took place in New Brunswick [the October 2013 standoff between the RCMP and Mi’kmaq warriors] are scarily similar. As the story was breaking in the mainstream media, it very much favoured the RCMP. But the constant stream of cellphone videos and reports on the ground told a much different story about police-incited violence. What are your thoughts on the role of new media?

AO: I think it’s fantastic. I felt terrible I wasn’t there, because I made three films with the Mi’kmaq people in the past. When they were struggling, I wanted to go right away, but I was here [Toronto] at ImagiNATIVE. The first night, I didn’t sleep. I just felt terrible that I wasn’t there, but I also felt that it’s a different time. And it’s going to be documented by themselves, inside.

cléo: Almost immediately, videos were being uploaded.

AO: This is incredible. It’s wonderful. And I just love those people. Since Oka, since Kanehsatake, the police have more experience of how to handle things. I know that whenever something like that happens, they block the press and no one can get in. But the strength of the whole thing is now inside. There are a lot of people there that are filming. It’s being documented. And I think that this is incredible.

Mallory Andrews is the submissions editor of cléo.

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Mallory Andrews is the submissions editor of cléo.