NFB filmmaker Obomsawin gets MOMA retrospective

After 40 years as a documentary maker with the National Film Board of Canada, Alanis Obomsawin is suddenly the centre of attention.

After 40 years as a documentary maker with the National Film Board of Canada, Alanis Obomsawin is suddenly the centre of attention.

On Friday, she'll be award a Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement for her accomplishment in exploring the stories and political issues of First Nations Canadians.

She is also the subject of two major retrospectives of her work — at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"It's such an honour," Obomsawin said of the news that MOMA will include 12 of her films in a week-long retrospective May 13-19.

MOMA owns a copy of her film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance with the rights to show it annually.

All four of the films she made about stories of the 1990 Oka crisis are to be included in the retrospective, as well as her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory.

The Oka crisis fascinated her as a filmmaker. It is really the culmination of a series of stories about municipalities encroaching on First Nations land across the country, she told CBC News.

"It really has been a turning point for all the reserves in the country," she said. "So many have had this kind of problem, with municipalities taking over their land piece by piece and it was just ignored. The Oka crisis came along and it was a very different story. It got international attention. It's very difficult now to do that kind of thing."

Obomsawin's most recent completed project is Gene Boy Came Home, the story of how  Eugene "Gene Boy" Benedict  became a Vietnam War veteran and the toll it took on his life.

Benedict is from Odanak, Que., and his story was one she gathered when making Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises, which gathers stories of her own Abenaki heritage.

"I knew his story from interviewing him, thinking he would be in Waban-Aki," she said. "It was not working. His story didn't fit in because it was so different."

Waban-Aki is part of the MOMA retrospective, curated by Sally Berger. Obomsawin plans to be in New York for the question and answer session after each MOMA screening.

The retrospective in Boston May 28-31 includes Waban-Aki, Gene Boy Came Home and Oka-related film Spudwrench-Kahnawake Man.

Obomsawin herself doesn't see an evolution to her filmmaking style, saying there are so many First Nations stories that need to be told.

"Everything I've done was for a very strong reason. They're all very important to me," she said.

Obomsawin said she often felt alone in the early days  of her filmmaking. She was criticized for being political and presenting the stories of today's First Nations people through a lens of past injustices.

But attitudes toward the documentary have changed. With cinemas embracing filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Jennifer Baichwal, it's no longer a sin to be political.

And Obomsawin says she's heartened by the number of young filmmakers who now have an interest in First Nations stories.

"So many people are involved with doing video now," Obomsawin said.

The four Oka films are now being re-released by the National Film Board as a commemorative DVD box-set, 270 Years of Resistance, with a booklet of essays.