50 years of Indigenous cinema: The impact of Alanis Obomsawin

She is an icon in filmmaking and one of the most acclaimed Indigenous directors in the world. Legendary Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin discusses growing up, smuggling her film reels out of barricades, and her inspirations over five decades of filmmaking.
Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who has worked with the NFB for over five decades. (Scott Stevens/National Film Board)

When Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin started making films in the late 1960s there were very few Indigenous filmmakers in Canada. Today, at the age of 86, Obomsawin is working on her 53rd documentary.

Obomsawin is often described as an activist filmmaker. Her films shed light on discrimination and injustice, but also on Indigenous strength and resistance.

In her landmark documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) Obomsawin documented what is often referred to as "the Oka Crisis." She filmed the 1990 armed standoff between the Mohawk, the Quebec police and the Canadian army.

Many media outlets pulled their reporters from the scene, recalled Obomsawin. "They didn't want their employees to be there because they thought there would be a massacre."

Like most media, the National Film Board asked Obomsawin to leave the volatile situation. "The Film Board was telling me 'You have to come out now, you have to come out.' And I wouldn't come out," said Obomsawin.

Obomsawin refused to leave, "because I was going to tell the story 'til the end."

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"It was history," said Obomsawin. "I felt it had to be recorded by one of us."

Obomsawin had a colleague smuggle some of her tapes out for her, to ensure that her footage wouldn't be confiscated. She spent 78 days filming the standoff.

Host Rosanna Deerchild with legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin in her office at the National Film Board in Montreal. (CBC)

Over the course of her career, Obomsawin has watched the rise in Indigenous filmmakers and she's seen support from the public grow. "There's been so much change," explained Obomsawin.

When she thinks about the future, Obomsawin said, "It's much higher than hope."

"Her whole career is an act of decolonization"

The vibrancy of Indigenous cinema today, in Canada and globally, can be traced back to Obomsawin, explained Jesse Wente, director of the Indigenous Screen Office.

Wente remembers "vividly" when he first saw one of Obomsawin's films. It was 1984, and her film, Incident at Resitgouche, was playing on TV.

"And she was really holding truth to power, speaking truth to power in that movie. And I was just struck," recalled Wente. 

Today, a "whole generation of Indigenous people who now work in movies or around movies" are here because of Obomsawin's work, he explained. 

I honestly can't imagine us getting to a TRC without the work of Alanis Obomsawin.- Jesse Wente

"It was Alanis that gave us — I don't quite want to say permission — but maybe that's what it was, to dream that we could actually have a place in this industry."

Wente has spent the past 25 years working in the movie industry, "and I think it's all Alanis."

"She's really the grandmother of Indigenous cinema, maybe just the mother of Indigenous cinema."

But Obomsawin's reach is wider than Indigenous cinema, explained Wente. Her films have fundamentally impacted how people in Canada, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, understand ourselves, he said.

Jesse Wente, director of the national Indigenous Screen Office.

"I think her whole career is an act of decolonization," explained Wente. "An act of decolonization of our screens, of our institutions … but most importantly a decolonization of our thoughts, and how we think and see the world."

Wente cited the importance of Obomsawin's film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. "Without that picture, we as a country would have a fundamentally different interpretation of the events that occurred during that summer," said Wente.

"And I think that has completely shaped and influenced how the country's actually moved forward since then." 

"I honestly can't imagine us getting to a TRC without the work of Alanis Obomsawin," said Wente. "She's that foundational and important to Canadian culture."

"Her whole career is about giving voice to those that haven't been voiceless, it's that they haven't had the microphone. And she's the one that has shown up and provided the microphone."

This week's playlist: 

Buffy Sainte-Marie - You Got To Run

Alanis Obomsawin - Theo                                                 

Alanis Obomsawin - Bush Lady