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2009 Outstanding Achievement Award: Alanis Obomsawin


“As a filmmaker, I don’t feel as though it’s my story; I feel like it’s a film by the people I’m filming. That power has to remain theirs. I’m a servant to them, a tool that tries to make it happen in the best way possible.” — Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin’s films prove that documentaries really can change the world. Radical, deeply personal, humanist, and uncompromising, her groundbreaking documentaries have reframed Canada’s history, decoded its present, and inspired essential changes in government policy. An Officer of the Order of Canada and a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award (for Visual and Media Arts in 2001 and for Lifetime Achievement in 2008), she is an inspirational artist and one of Canada’s most precious creative resources.

Born in 1932 on Abenaki territory in New Hampshire to a hunting guide father and a mother with healing knowledge, Obomsawin spent the first year of her childhood in Odanak, Quebec, northeast of Montreal, before experiencing her first encounters with racism as the only First Nations child in a nearby school.

Motivated by the lack of respect she experienced growing up, Obomsawin became a storyteller, artist, educator and activity to provide empowerment and inspiration for other First Peoples. Her early films, made after she was invited to join the National Film Board of Canada in 1967, featured Aboriginal people speaking for themselves for the first time, softly reframing history.

She fought hard for funding for early films and multimedia educational works using elders’ stories, such as History of Manawan (1972) and Lil’wat (1975), both of which were recently digitized and reissued. These multimedia works – the first classroom materials made in Aboriginal languages – were quietly revolutionary, exemplifying Obomsawin’s storytelling technique of subtly building to a potent conclusion.

In person, Obomsawin is compassionate, wickedly funny, dignified, defiant, and an intense listener. With her films, she begins not with the camera, but with the microphone. She honours the gift of the storyteller with patience and compassion, listening for as long as it takes to hear those who have been without a voice for so long. Watching her films, time is slowed down, and we learn to listen louder, picking up the quiet range of profound emotional, political, and historical complexities inherent in the subjects’ stories.

Obomsawin’s potent combination of meticulous research, historical and political context, and tenacious ability to always be in the centre of the action has had a powerful effect on government procedure and policy. Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis child (1986) helped bring about much needed changes in government policy. No Address (1988), about homeless Aboriginal men and women in Montreal, changed the welfare system by enabling those without fixed addresses to receive welfare though the Native Friendship Centre.

Her political films, particularly the four that deal with the “Oka Crisis” of 1990 — Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man (1997), and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000) – are among her most acclaimed and best-known. To capture the motivation and emotion behind the barricades, Obomsawin stayed with the Mohawks for the whole stand-off, sleeping in the rough with a camera as her pillow. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance went on to win 18 international awards, including the CityTV Award for Best Canadian Film at the Toronto International Film Festival. That these stories were told by a First Nations filmmaker challenged the historical narrative of Canadian multicultural harmony. Perhaps their most shocking quality is not their anger, but their forgiveness. Land claims cases drag on, unresolved, and stand-offs continue across the country, but government response is much more measured, public understanding and sympathy higher.

Her legacy of films, along with her diligent commitment to nurturing Aboriginal youth, has helped spawn a vibrant, talented community of Aboriginal filmmakers, many of whom cite her as a major influence in their decision to become filmmakers. Her work was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City last year, as well as a book – Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker by Randolph Lewis.

At the age of 76, Obomsawin is unstoppable. As is evident from her recent accomplishments, she has the energy of a dozen people a quarter her age. She continues her passionate defence of unrecognized heroes with her most recent film, Professor Norman Cornett, which was its world premiere ay Hot Docs this year. Though the film departs from Aboriginal issues, it deals directly with themes that have motivated and defined her work – social justice, education, and the fight for intellectual autonomy – and continues her quest to remind us that we are all in this struggle together.

Through her films, voices transform and take on new power. She eloquently manifests the spirit of all the stories she has ever been told, synthesizing them into a new cinematic language that rewrites history with a determined collective voice. Having mastered one of the most powerful media of our time, Obomsawin is not only changing history, she is making it.

— Gisèle Gordon
Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective Programmer



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