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June 14, 2013

Alanis Obomsawin: Documenting Native Canada

Interview by Patrick Watson, NMAI

Alanis Obomsawin is very passionate about her work.
Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has been directing and producing documentaries for the past 46 years. In that time, she has made more than 40 films on the Indigenous peoples of Canada. From the Oka Crisis, during which a group of Mohawk engaged in a 78-day standoff with Canadian police and military in defense of their land, to the story of First Nations Vietnam War veteran Eugene Benedict, Obomsawin has been there documenting, educating, and fighting for the rights of her people. Her latest film, The People of the Kattawapiskak River, is about the 2011 housing crisis at Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation community in northern Ontario. Since the film's initial release, Obomsawin has added two epilogues dealing with fresh aid sent to Attawapiskat and a hearing on the handling of the crisis by the minister of aboriginal affairs.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a free screening of the film tomorrow—Saturday, June 15—at 7 p.m. Obomsawin will be available for a question-and-answer session after the screening. This event is part of our ongoing series, Dinner and a Movie, and our Zagat-rated Mitsitam Cafe will stay open from 5 to 6:30 p.m. for visitors who would like to purchase contemporary and traditional Native American cuisine before the film.

Can you explain what made the housing situation at Attawapiskat so awful?

Alanis Obomsawin: Well, I think it's been going on for a very long time. The housing situation is not only very poor, but the houses coming in are multi-houses, and obviously they are not built for the northern weather. These are prefabricated houses, and they are good at first, but after five or ten years, it's finished. They're not strong enough to weather the kind of weather that there is over there, and a lot of them were in very poor condition and needed repairs.

They have a thousand people who are waiting for a house, a decent house, so you can imagine. It's a population that's growing very rapidly, so the houses are overcrowded. It's been like this for many years, and the system of housing and help, monetary help to be able to service the need, hasn't been adequate for many years.

When you were at Attawapiskat, was it difficult to visit the people and see how poor their housing conditions were?

It's always heartbreaking to see that and to see large families with all the children living in those kinds of conditions. I was there making another film, and the situation was so bad—I could see the young people and everybody getting so down with a lot of bad publicity and accusations of all sorts of things. So I put that film aside and made The People of the Kattawapiskak River. It proved to be very helpful because it sort of told it like it is.

Do you stay in touch with any of the people you film?

Yes, I went back. I'm just now finishing the first film I went there for, concerning the educational system and the school, and this is going to come out in the fall sometime. It's a different film, so I'm working with people from there all the time these days.

They're lucky to have you representing them.

Well, they're very special people. I'm very fond of them.

The last line of the original film was especially moving. When you're working on your films, do you recognize important things like that as you're filming, or do the poetics really emerge in the editing process?

I listen to people for many hours and visit them time and time again, so by the time I'm in the cutting room, I have to feel that the story is there and I understand what it is they're talking about. And they're poets themselves. I don't tell them what to say. It comes from them directly. It's a gift, really.

Do you think there's a bright future for Attawapiskat, or are they going to be facing housing crises like this in the future as well?

It's not going to be resolved overnight, but I am very hopeful, and I know that things are going to get better. There's such a strong movement going on now all over the country in terms of changes that people are going to make happen, and it really concerns a lot of our people.

A major theme in a lot of your films is the deceit and misdirection on the part of the national government that keeps Indigenous peoples at a disadvantage. How do you think First Nations might be able to combat those sorts of tactics?

We have a lot of very strong leadership, and the young people are just incredible. There's a very strong movement going on now about changes that are going to have to happen, so it's a very different time, I can tell you this. So I don't even call it hope. It's another word that I cannot find yet. It's so strong that it's very encouraging.

Why documentaries? There are lots of ways to present events and people, but what was it that drew you to documentary film in particular?

Documentary film, for me, is my world. I love documentary film because the voice comes directly from the people. I don't have to do drama. The drama is naturally there in their lives, and I never get tired of listening to them. Everywhere I go, I'm always amazed by how people have survived through so much, and I am very passionate about this kind of work.


The film will screen this Saturday at NMAI.


Patrick Watson is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian's Office of Public Affairs. He is pursuing a BA in Plan II Honors and English from the University of Texas at Austin and expects to graduate May 2015.


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Hi, we love documentary too. It enrichs perception of the world and specificly background like the people of the kattawapiskak river.

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