Alanis Obomsawin: The Canadian Female Director You Should Know

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a master class talk with Alanis Obomsawin, hosted by the York University film department. I had learned about Obomsawin multiple times, watching her films in many classes — not only in film classes but my Women and Human Rights course as well. It became clear to me that Obomsawin is not only an important director for film students to know, but she’s an important person for everyone to know as she documents and shares important social justice movements and her experiences.

At the talk, Obomsawin talked about her life, her work, and her career in the film industry. Growing up, Obomsawin noticed a lot wrong with the school curriculum, and she realized history books were full of a lot of hate towards Indigenous people. She saw this problem, and wanted to make a change. At the time she was a singer living on a reserve in Quebec.

When the St. Francis River became too polluted to swim in, and kids from the reserve weren't welcome in the community pool outside the reserve, Alanis decided to build a pool for her community using her own money and money donated by friends and family. When CBC heard the news, they decided to document the construction of the pool and create a short documentary profile on Alanis. In the documentary she talks about her life, the pool, the reserve and she even shares some of her songs.

It was then that her name started to become well known outside of her community and she was asked to join the National Film Board as an activist consultant to two filmmakers making a social documentary. She then began making her own films at the NFB, making history as the first female Indigenous filmmaker that the NFB employed.

Alanis wanted to expose the racism Indigenous groups experience in her documentaries. One of the most important documentaries that she made is titled Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a film that’s popular for viewing in high schools and many human rights courses in university.

Photo via IMDb - Still from Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)

The film documented the Oka Crisis of 1990, a land dispute between the Mohawk people and the people of Oka, Quebec who wanted to build a golf course on Indigenous land. At the master class, Obomsawin talked about the process of filming the documentary, and I learned about her experiences being part of this historical event.

Obomsawin said she was driving to work when she heard the news about Oka on the radio. She then changed course and drove directly to the story, getting a crew shortly after. They thought the dispute would last a weekend at most, but the Oka Crisis lasted 78 days. Obomsawin said that it was not an easy documentary to shoot. It was emotionally draining as she experienced racist comments from some of the Quebec police as well as experiencing physical challenges, sleeping outside on the ground in September and finishing the documentary with eye infections in both eyes.

One excerpt that really stuck out to me was how Obomsawin told us she recorded only sound by herself for sometime when her camera operator left the physically demanding shoot. Eventually, her old crew was allowed to visit and drop off food and a blanket for her. Wrapped in the blanket was a small digital camera. Obomsawin was nervous to use it as she was accustomed to 16 mm film and she didn’t have digital experience. But she knew the story was important and that it needed to be documented and shared with the world, so she learned to use the device and filmed the rest of the documentary by herself with the handheld camera.

This image is one that is significant to recognize, as not only was Alanis the first Indigenous filmmaker employed at the NFB, but she herself was documenting history and telling the story authentically like never before.

Obomsawin’s strong will is admirable and I believe she is a woman that we can all look up to for her storytelling, her determination and her belief in the power of education and human rights.

Obomsawin encourages us to “tell the stories that are truthful to you and that represent aspects of you. Don’t take no for an answer and stand up to those who try to take the story from you.” A lesson that we can all apply to our lives, whether we make films, write stories, create paintings or are just passionate about social justice.

Photo via IMDb - still from Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013)

Film is a tool that can be used for video activism. Obomsawin finished the master class by talking about video activism and the progress and change in society she has finally seen in the last five years in regards to Indigenous rights and supporters in education and film. She talked about Kanehsatake in regards to it happening today and the power we all have now to create a difference and document events with our phones. We are all able to create a change, we have the tools in our hands.

Obomsawin still continues to make films in her late eighties, giving a voice to those who have been and continue to be marginalized.

Photo via IMDb

I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to check out her films on the NFB website. From Trick or Treaty, to Kanehsatake, to Hi-Ho Mistahey, Obomsawin films share important stories of people who have been mistreated by society, and encompass themes of hope towards change and a better world.