Legendary Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin says at 89 years of age she is still driven to tell Indigenous stories, and after 54 years of doing that she is seeing more than a few signs of positive change in the country.
“There is racism, yes, in a lot of places … but there is also a good side that is going on, especially in the last 10 years … [many] Canadians really want to see justice for our people,” said Obomsawin from her office at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.
Obomsawin is one of the most acclaimed Indigenous directors in the world and is considered by many as the mother of Indigenous filmmaking.
Earlier this month, APTN added 11 of Obomsawin’s films to its paid streaming service, APTN lumi.
[Many] Canadians really want to see justice for our people.– Alanis Obomsawin, Abenaki filmmaker
The films added include some of her most landmark films, including: Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance, a 1993 film about a 78-day siege of Mohawks west of Montreal fighting to stop an expansion of a golf course; Incident at Restigouche, about a Quebec provincial police raid on Mi’kmaw salmon fishers in 1981; and Trick or Treaty?, a film about a fight by Indigenous leaders in Ontario to enforce their treaty and protect their lands, among others.
Films ‘remain relevant today’
“Whether the film was created in 1984 or 2019, Obomsawin’s documentaries address important Indigenous matters that remain relevant today,” said Monika Ille, CEO of APTN, in a release.
Obomsawin has produced 53 films in her career so far that touch on issues of child welfare, residential school, as well as fishing and land rights, among many others. She said she strives to always focus on the people, culture, dignity and language in her stories.
She also said she has fought her whole life to see changes in how Canadian history is taught in classrooms.
“Education is my main concern,” Obomsawin said.
“For many generations, I thought it was criminal the way they were teaching the history of our country, by creating and designing a system through the books they were using to create hate for our people.”
Grateful to see real shift
Obomsawin said she is grateful to see a real shift in how history is taught in schools and to see greater understanding and empathy for Indigenous peoples.
“For me, it’s much more profound than hope,” Obomsawin said.
As a young filmmaker in the 1960s, Obomsawin spent a lot of time in courtrooms in different provinces.
She describes seeing separate rows of Indigenous men and women, receiving guilty verdicts without having the right to say anything at all in their defence.
“They had no say. It was ‘guilty, guilty,'” Obomsawin said. “It was so painful to watch.”
Now I see people being respected. They are heard.– Alanis Obomsawin, Abenaki filmmaker
“Now, I see people being respected. They are heard. There were even ceremonies in court. So for me to see that difference … our people being treated … like human beings. It’s such a big change.”
Obomsawin’s most recent film is Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair, a half-hour documentary that came out this year.
WARNING: This video contains details some viewers may find distressing.
The film made Canada’s Top 10 list at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is focused on a speech the former senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave in 2016.
“You have a hard time to even take out even one word, because every word [Sinclair] says, you are being educated,” Obomsawin said.
Saying the “doors are open,” Obomsawin said she keeps telling young Indigenous people to go after what they want.
As for her, the 89-year-old is working on several films, as well as a biography.