First Alanis Obomsawin was on camera, then she got behind it
Documentary maker was a singer and storyteller before working for the National Film Board
Alanis Obomsawin may have first come to the attention of CBC viewers on the program The Observer in 1964. Obomsawin, who came from the Odanak reserve near Sorel, Que., performed two traditional Abenaki songs before speaking with the show's host, Al Hamel.
"Progress is a very beautiful word that the white man has for himself," she told Hamel. "But sometimes, to [Indigenous people] it is a very sad word, because it has... taken away all [their] culture."
In the years since that early appearance, Obomsawin has gone on to be an acclaimed filmmaker who has directed over 50 films for the National Film Board of Canada. Now 89, she is the subject of a retrospective program of her work at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival called Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin.
"She tells the stories of how Indigenous people in Canada have resisted injustice and abuse inflicted by the most powerful authorities a country can have, and how those people have fought back in the streets and in the courts," wrote TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey on the TIFF website.
Obomsawin was subsequently profiled on the CBC-TV biography series Telescope in 1966. She has also appeared on CBC numerous times to discuss her work.
1987: No Address
In November 1987, Obomsawin had been invited to a film festival in northern France.
"On opening night, Alanis Obomsawin told the audience about the voice of her elders, about how they used to say that when the settlers came to New France they were like a river: fast and unstoppable," said Midday host Peter Downie in his introduction to an interview with the filmmaker in her Montreal home.
"People have to know us, but they'll never know us if they don't let us say who we are, why it is like it is," said Obomsawin. "I want the river to go the other way."
Obomsawin's most recent film at the time was 1986's Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child. She was already at work on a yet-untitled film about Indigenous people living in Montreal without homes. Midday showed an excerpt from scenes shot by Obomsawin; the film was eventually titled No Address.
"What worries me most is that some of them are so used to it, they don't feel that they deserve more," she said, of the people in her film.
She said she wasn't making her film for the sake of making a film.
"I try to do more," Obomsawin told Downie. "This film is very important. If it can help, making people understand... to have a better attitude toward these people on the street."
1993: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
In 1993, Obomsawin spoke to CBC's On the Arts about another of her films: that year's Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Like her other films, it was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
Host Brian Wilson said it had been made under "unusual and trying circumstances" — amid the tense standoff between the Mohawks and the police during the Oka crisis of 1990.
Obomsawin had dropped what she was working on to capture what was happening in Oka, a small town in Quebec where Mohawk residents opposed the town's plan to expand a golf course.
"I was working on another film," she said. "So I changed my budget to this new production that I wanted to do... I left the film board with a crew but we didn't have a sound person so I did my own sound."
There were other technical challenges to work around: she was running out of tape and charging the batteries on her cameras was challenging.
Wilson asked about criticism that held that the film was "one-sided."
"I can't hide the fact that I have a point of view," Obomsawin replied. "Every film I've made, there's a point of view... I'm not pointing at anyone in the film. I feel it's a mirror for this country to look at."
Alanis Obomsawin is scheduled as a guest on CBC Radio's Q on Sept. 16.