World-premiering her 26th film, Professor Norman Cornett--"Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?" at this year's Hot Docs (April 30 - May 10, 2009), Alanis Obomsawin is also being celebrated with a retrospective for a body of work that is truly staggering. A member of the Abenaki Nation, she is one of Canada's most distinguished filmmakers, the list of her awards and honors a good five pages long. For over forty years, she has directed documentaries at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) chronicling the lives and struggles of First Nations people and the issues that affect the Canadian Aboriginals. She has brought about social and political change and awareness through her films, but more importantly, she has been the emotional archivist for the voices of her people, listening and chronicling stories for decades.
Obomsawin is also a musician, singer, sculpter, painter, teacher, educator and storyteller. She began making films in 1967 with Christmas at Moose Factory. Other films include Incident at Restigouche (1984), documenting a violent clash when the Quebec police force raids a Micmac reserve; Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), an examination of an adolescent's suicide; and No Address (1988), a piece about the homeless in Montréal.
In the 1960s, Obomsawin was making her living as a professional singer in New York City; in '67, NFB producers, Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall, saw her on a television show and invited her to come work with the Film Board as an adviser on a film they were producing on the Aboriginal population. She's been making films for them ever since. Among many other posts, she was an original board member of Studio 1, the NFB's Aboriginal media studio, and an adviser to the New Initiatives in Film, a Studio D program for women of color and First Nations.
An incredibly beautiful and vibrant 77-year-old, Obomsawin met with me this week at the NFB offices in downtown Toronto to talk about her wondrous career, but more importantly, about her favorite past time, that of listening--hours upon hours upon hours of listening--to people's stories. In turn, she translates these stories into superb works of art. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): Looking back on your career, which now spans several decades—which is amazing. . .
Alanis Obomsawin (AO): [laughing] Which makes me Grandma Moses, you mean?
SIM: No, it makes you an incredible gift to the communities in which you work. Can you tell me, at what point, as you started making films--developing your relationship with the NFB, as you developed your own cinematic voice--was there a particular moment where you recognized yourself as a filmmaker "of note"? Was it a surprise to you when you discovered yet another way of telling stories this way, how powerful it was? You have many other forms in which you express yourself artistically. What inspires you about this particular art form?
AO: For me, it’s the word—to really listen to people. I never get tired of it. I’m always so amazed when people tell me about their lives, especially if I’m talking to older people. When I listen to someone that is older, I just look at the person and in my mind, there’s a question that I never say out loud, but people feel it. That question is, “How did you survive?”
Every story that I hear differs from one person to the next but I’m always so moved by the courage of people, how they have managed to go on. Every time I sit down with someone who talks about his or her life, to me it’s a very sacred thing. I love it. So it’s even more the word than the image. Images are very important and can be very beautiful but you see, I come from a place where you had worlds of imagination only—we didn’t have electricity or running water. At night, we’d see by the oil lamps and people would start talking and telling stories. Each of the people listening had pictured a different story with different images. So I lived in my imagination; we all did. This is why I take a lot of care with sound. I will sit with someone and listen to him or her for hours before I come with the camera. I don’t start filming right away; I don’t really like to do that.
SIM: Do you feel like the presence of the camera might be intrusive in a way?
AO: Distracting. So by the time I’ve listened for a long time, and have had everything transcribed so I can read it closely, I can tell if I’ve misheard something or I feel like I really know the story. Then I can go back with the camera. There’s also the idea of developing this trust and intimacy between me and the person with whom I’m working. I will never get tired of it.
SIM: You’ve filmed many incidents that are shocking in nature due to some intense violence. There’s an immediacy, no one knows what’s going to happen before it does. And this is a vast departure from what we were just talking about—the luxury of sitting with someone for hours to listen to his or her stories. Knowing that you’re going to go back and craft a particular story around these incidents, you can play with time, placing things in a certain context in terms of what it is you want to say to your audience about these incidents in juxtaposition to the stories your subjects tell you.
AO: I certainly don’t pretend to be a camera person although I have shot many things myself. It’s a matter of taste, also—how you shoot something, where you place the camera, etc. You insinuate your camera into the best position possible and you try to make it as beautiful as possible. In the worst situations.
SIM: Is it difficult to disengage emotionally when something terrible is happening in front of the camera?
AO: I would be lying if I said I didn’t intensely feel what’s going on. If we’re talking about something like [Kanehsatake: 270 Years of] Resistance, it’s a very particular place to be. It’s often very dangerous and very nerve-wracking. There’s screaming going on, all sorts of things. So, yes, you feel everything. You have to be very centered in terms of what you’re doing, the reason why you’re there in the first place. At the same time, I don’t want to capture something at all costs. I feel sometimes that there are things that shouldn’t be filmed. So I don’t. For instance, in Kanehsatake, there were situations where they [the Indians] were doing ceremonies in the morning just before going back behind the barricades. I remember one particular time, there were lots of cameras there and there was a request that the cameras be shut off at a certain point. So I told my cameraman to stop shooting. But I noticed there were several people who kept shooting anyway, despite the request not to and you could see this gleam in their eye, “I got it. I got it.” I’m not like that.
SIM: It’s somewhat predatory; this is how the paparazzi operate—they don’t care about the people they’re photographing. In all of your films, there is this innate respect that comes through, in the way things are framed, the way stories are told.
Do you think your gender is advantageous at all? In almost every one of your stories, you highlight the very specific role women play in this culture and in these situations. There is a distinct delineation that pertains to gender in the culture. Each gender brings something specific to the table in a subtle way. There is always this group of women taking on a very specific role.
AO: I don’t really consider it in advance so much, but I do feel as I go along, no matter where I am, that a woman has a specific role for a very simple reason: she’s the one that has the babies, the life-giver. In my mind and in my heart, there’s no power higher than that. Because of this, women always have a very special place. Men have another role but women need a special recognition of their presence. I think like that, actually, in my everyday life.
SIM: Your latest film about Norman Cornett, premiering here at Hot Docs this week, is a real departure in many ways for you. But it’s a story that resonates with your usual themes and there’s a relationship between the two of you as colleagues and friends. [Obomsawin was one of the many artists, politicians, writers, filmmakers, musicians, Cornett brought into his classroom at McGill University for his unorthodox religious studies course. He was abruptly fired from the University with no explanation.]
AO: I first met Norman in 2001 and that was the first time I went to his class. It was an extraordinary experience. Every year since meeting him, I would visit him and his students two or three times a year, sometimes more depending on what was going on, until 2007. Some friends of mine wanted to make a film about him and asked me to direct it. I said yes because it gave me a chance to give something back to him for his incredible generosity. It was my way of thanking him for that experience.
Long before I was making films, my fight, too, was always about education. In those days, we had the residential [boarding] schools. I attended those. I spent a lot of time in the 60s fighting against these schools, trying to acquire inclusion in the classroom, pushing ourselves into the classroom—that’s what we were doing. That’s where it all starts. So to see his way of teaching was very, very special to me, to care so much for students and make them feel like they don’t want to miss one class; that’s how exciting it is. It’s a loss not to have him teach anymore.
SIM: Has there been any progress in the case at all since his dismissal? Or is he still out in the cold with no explanation, no real reparations or hopes of getting his post back?
AO: He has still not accepted their negotiations. [McGill offered Cornett a small amount of money in the hopes that he would quietly go away and not continue to prod the institution for an explanation for his dismissal.] He’s got nothing. The University has remained silent. I wrote them two letters to invite them to speak to me and they never even acknowledged that. They were signed for, we know that, but there was no answer. I find that behavior very strange. They could have responded in the negative by saying they didn’t want any part of the film but there’s just silence. Professionally, that doesn’t look very good.
SIM: It is a bit insidious. It does make you wonder what in the world is going on there. It highlights a very important issue in all of our institutions, this kind of stonewalling act. In your other films, you show that there is this intense brutality that exists on the part of institutions that seem to feel they are immune from decent human behavior. Instead of violence, in this case, you have this very quiet kind of brutality where you kill someone’s spirit, take away everything that’s precious to him. Your way of handling this subject matter, obviously, had to be very different, but it still has a personal, human-scale way of chronicling a tragedy. It’s still silencing someone who’s threatening the status quo. Documenting that silence seems to be your life’s work, in a way.
AO: It’s incredibly sad, isn’t it? It’s worse than being unfair; you wonder how they do that, treat people in that way, to negate someone’s existence.
SIM: You’ve constantly pushed against that negation with your films. It goes beyond petitioning for “rights” to something more, the demand for recognition after decades of silencing.
AO: Humiliating is the word.
SIM: In the US, the Native American people have very similar stories to the First Nation people here in Canada. The aboriginal people, in any culture, have experienced this over and over again. This canon of work you’ve contributed to the culture: do you feel the weight of any kind of responsibility, of being the bridge between your people, those silenced voices, and the rest of society? Do you feel a sense of satisfaction, frustration?
AO: Simply, I feel it’s my duty to do what I do. I have a great love for what I do. For me, it’s always been about giving everything and doing it in the best way I know how, the way things look and sound. I work a lot with stock footage and still photos and it can be difficult sometimes to make all that look great. The challenge is to somehow, technically, arrive at something much better than what you were provided. I’m extremely lucky to be at the National Film Board; they’re so helpful, especially when I come with terrible footage [laughing] and don’t know what to do with it. But the help and care they give towards the end product is really wonderful.
SIM: Well, I get the impression, as wonderful as this relationship is with the NFB, that if they weren’t in the picture you’d still be somehow crafting stories.
AO: Oh yes.
SIM: What other stories are out there that are particularly fascinating for you? What stories haven’t you yet told that you’d like to? It hardly seems like you’re tapped out in that regard.
AO: No, I’m not dry yet [laughs]. I tell you, everything excites me. Everybody has a story. If you really listen to anybody, to someone’s life, it’s important. Some journalist who writes for a very important publication, who’s “done” with subjects once she gets one or two proper sound bites and has her story, once asked me how I could sit for hours with people. She told me she’d get so bored. I, on the other hand, never leave.
SIM: Not too many people really have the infinite patience to sit and listen; our culture isn’t really attuned to that kind of discipline anymore. It does take an innate love of other human beings.
AO: It’s a different world. When you’re working on documentary, it’s a luxury, because you’re given the time, or you take the time. Time is precious. I don’t want to give the impression that journalists don’t do their job; it’s a different discipline, a different way of working, a different need. I couldn’t work like that, however.
SIM: There are many, many ways you express your creativity and your vision outside of filmmaking—through fine art, music. You are truly a multi-disciplinary artist; no wonder Cornett brought you to his class. Can you imagine any other life for yourself? I have to tell you, you are the most peaceful, happy person I’ve come across in quite a while—you exude a quiet joy that’s really lovely. Most of us are frenetic and striving and hopping up and down and waving like mad to be noticed and loved, frustrated a lot of the time in our desperation to be understood, to be heard.
AO: I don’t know what the answer is, either. All I can say is that I see beauty in everything. For instance, I make toys for children. I’ve been doing this for fifty years. When I started, I couldn’t afford to buy any toys or any materials to make toys. In my early career, I spent a lot of time and energy pushing for education and I would tour around to schools. In one month, it wasn’t unusual for me to do about sixty concerts at all the residential schools that existed at that time. I’d go to a classroom and storytell, going from class to class. At recreation time, I’d go run around with the kids outside and show them Indian games.
I would ask the children to do some drawings about what they saw and heard. Children have a very particular way they draw people—it’s wonderful. I would take the drawing and make it bigger and make a toy, like a stuffed animal figure, and make it look exactly like the portrait a child had drawn. I would make a bunch of them and I’d go to another reserve and take these toys with me. At Christmastime, I would dispense these toys and then I would have that school do drawings and make toys from those and give them away at another school. The children loved those toys; it was the same language, the same way of seeing the world—how they see the world. I did that for years and still do that once in a while when I can find the time. It’s so much fun. The adults look at these toys and are just puzzled—an eye here, another one there [pointing to different areas of her face]. Honestly, they’re easier for me to make because I don’t have to bother with “realism” [laughing].
People used to give me their rags because I really couldn’t afford to even buy material; I was making a very small salary. I would have piles of rags in my house. One time, some people were over having a drink and I was sewing away making this black doll. And someone pointed out a kitchen curtain with the rings still attached in a pile of rags and said they would make nice earrings. She said, “Oh, that would make a nice Aunt Jemima.” After they left, I looked at this doll and wondered why in the world she had to be “Aunt Jemima” just because she was black. I embroidered the faces on these dolls and it took me a long time to do that. But I took it all apart and cut off all the thread and started all over again. I had this piece of white satin and made a beautiful white dress with a high neck and big puffy sleeves. I made this fabulous dress and gave her a fabulous hairdo and put beads around her neck; she looked like the Queen of Africa [laughing]. Away with Aunt Jemima!
SIM: Who received that doll?
AO: I gave it to a little girl in my village; she was around ten years old. Many years later, she was getting married and I went to the wedding. Her grandmother asked me to come upstairs with her so she could show me something. On the bed of that girl that was getting married, there was the doll. It looked brand-new, the same as the day I had given it to her. Nobody had been allowed to touch it. Isn’t that fabulous? She makes her bed everyday and she’s got that doll there centered right in the middle, in a place of honor. I was so touched by that.
SIM: I imagine that doll will be given to her own daughter one day, maybe. That’s a nice story. Does the work you do inform other work or do you consider them completely different manifestations of your creativity?
AO: I feel that everything is connected. It’s all for the same reason. It’s for love; it’s for sharing. The etchings I do are similar. I did one exhibition that I called Mother of Many Children. I have a film by that title, also. I etched a lot of women with children from old photographs from different nations; there were about thirty of them. It’s very time- consuming, very fine work, scratching on copper or zinc—I love doing it. It’s good therapy.
SIM: Who tends to inspire you?
AO: It comes, generally, from the people I work with, their stories. It’s what they talk about that inspires me. They give so much of themselves, influencing social change. They want their stories to influence or help someone else. The generosity is unbelievable. It amazes me. It’s very rich to spend a life like that with these people. And those stories are for those that are not here yet.
It’s a very powerful place to be, in film, for many, many reasons. You can influence the world. And your work gets disseminated and travels out into the larger world without you and lives its own life, influencing and creating change all over the place. It’s really incredible. When I was touring and singing, I had to be there, obviously. That was the most amazing thing to me when I started to make films. I don’t have to be there, but the work is being done.
Alanis Obomsawin will be honored tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Hot Docs Awards Presentation at the Isabel Bader Theatre. I will have news of award winners, film reviews and more from Hot Docs soon.