Deep Style: Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin Talks Her Latest Documentary

Shaken and Moved by Alanis Obomsawin's latest release, The People of the Kattawapiskak River, Sheila Heti tracks down the luminous 80-year-old filmmaker and ponders the connection between aging beautifully and using your voice for good

Photo Courtesy of NFB

Photo Courtesy of NFB

After my friend came back from a screening of a documentary by the 80-year-old Alanis Obomsawin at the ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, she immediately emailed to tell me I had to see her powerful films. She also admitted that the effect the filmmaker had onstage captivated her: she was beautiful, charismatic, youthful. Many young men flirted with her at the after-party, where she danced all night.

I immediately went to the NFB website to watch Obomsawin’s films, and I found myself, like my friend, enraptured. She narrates her themes of struggle and survival, injustice and care, in a heartfelt and personal way that draws you in so close.

Obomsawin began working for the National Film Board of Canada in 1967 and has since made more than 30 documentaries that have won her innumerable international awards, including a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General of Canada. Most famous is her tense and astonishing Kanehsatake: 270 years of Resistance, which chronicles the 1990 Oka Crisis, the land dispute between the Mohawk people and the mayor of Oka, who, backed by the government, planned to expand a golf course onto native burial grounds. Protesters blocked the bulldozers with their bodies. Obomsawin spoke to people on all sides, presenting with insight and sensitivity the escalating standoffs.

Her latest film, The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), is an account of the brutal housing conditions in Attawapiskat, a Cree community in northern Ontario. There are so many scenes that still play in my mind regularly, even months after I saw it; moments of her camera moving slowly and steadily, like a crime scene investigator, through homes that are falling apart and have been for years, or through the halls of tract houses with floors and ceilings that can be pulled apart with one hand, they’re rotting so badly; at another site, Obomsawin finds no toilet seats in the women’s bathrooms and no tables in the kitchen and dining space. “There used to be tables, but I don’t know what happened to them,” says the filmmaker’s guide.

What connected all the films, for me, was not only Obomsawin’s activism, but her voice. She has a light Québécois accent, and although it is full of emotion, it is also restrained and as skillfully modulated as a great actor’s. It surprised me, then, that when I asked her about her voice, she had nothing to say about it: “I’m not the important thing here. I don’t talk for [the people I have filmed]. They have their own voice. It’s my ability to make sure that they’re heard. I tell what they told me.”

To make her documentaries, she spends weeks in the environment where her piece is set and listens for hours with her tape recorder on, before bringing in a camera. Many younger documentarians don’t have the patience, she said, to sit and listen. They say, “I don’t know how you do it.” But for her it’s simple. She loves listening. “The voice is more important than anything else.

“I was raised on a reservation [east of Montreal] and we didn’t have electricity or running water. In the evening we had oil lamps and we listened to people telling us about their experiences, hunting and fishing… It’s changed now because of the television. Instead of listening to old people talking to you, you’re watching TV. So it’s even more important to get some of these documentaries on television so that the children, who are watching TV all the time, can look at themselves and realize where they come from, and the contribution of their people.”

It must be vindicating that she has become one of the most significant documenters of Canadian history and aboriginal politics. When she was a girl, she said, the framing of history was obscenely racist, and the textbooks were “very well designed to make sure that our people would be considered inferior, ugly, dirty—people who went around doing massacres.”

Scenes from 2012's The People of the Kattawapiskak River- about the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat reserve in Nothern Ontario, which in part inspired the Idle No Mor Movement- available at NFB.ca

Scenes from 2012’s The People of the Kattawapiskak River—about the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat reserve in Nothern Ontario, which in part inspired the Idle No More Movement—available at NFB.ca

On the way home from school, “it didn’t matter which road I took. If they taught a class on the history of Canada, I knew I was going to get beat up that day. I was a child, so you think this is normal. But by the time I was 15, 16, I just was so angry. I felt that I had to be in the classroom, so that the children could hear other stories than these, and this is how I started. I went to hundreds of schools to sing and talk about history. Then, by the ’60s, somebody had made a short film on what I was doing, and from there the film board invited me to come over, and that’s when I began to make films.”

She told me that making the films is “difficult and dangerous and all those things,” but that ultimately the difficulties don’t matter, for “once it’s finished, you realize how important it was to do it.”

We spoke for an hour about activism, the beauty of film over video (but the new HD cameras come close), and the art of listening. When I hung up, I knew I hadn’t asked her all the questions I needed to write this column—like about how she dresses, and the material aspects of her life. Yet she deflected all personal questions, including those about her experience of being a mother (she has one daughter). I knew from photographs that she has great style; elegant, feminine, bold, all her garments chosen with deliberation and care. I suspect she sees dressing the way she sees her own voice: not as something she thinks about in itself, but as a tool she can use to honour and show respect for the people she listens to and films. Look at her face in pictures: one sees a joy and an intensity. That she hardly looks 80 makes me wonder: If one puts all one’s energy outside oneself, an energy that nevertheless pulls in other voices, other experiences, and acts as a conduit for other lives, does that give one more life, more vitality—the vitality of all the voices that speak through her?

Unable to completely quit her presence after our interview, I began watching her on YouTube. In one video, she receives an honorary degree from the University of British Columbia. She speaks about visiting the university’s students—specifically, a group of 30 kids that included native students and students from all over the world. What she said proved her deep and selfless commitment to making changes through art—a commitment that transcended her own lifetime. She was doing this not so she could see the results, or so her successes could be pinned to her, but, as she had told me, for the sake of future generations. Being with the UBC students, she said, “was a moving experience, and it made me feel the future is in good hands. I felt I did not have to worry so much anymore.”