Filmmaker, Singer, Engraver, Printmaker

1.    What engaged your interest in filmmaking?

Previously to filmmaking I was singing, but for the same reasons. Because of all the troubles I had going to school I wanted to change that for our own children. I didn’t quite know how to do it, but I thought, “I have to have access to speak to students.” I started singing professionally in the early ‘60’s and even previously to that I sang for Scouts and children, groups of children, often. By telling stories, talking about our history, and later on I started writing songs and chants in my language, in French and in English. I started to do organized tours in different schools across Canada, I did a lot of schools, and in those days I did a lot of residential schools, but also regular schools, public schools, universities and high schools, jails. I started being part of concerts and art centres and things like that- and folk festivals. This was to try to influence change in the educational system and among people at large- to tell them about ourselves.

In the early ‘60’s I was doing a campaign to build a swimming pool on my reserve for children and from there a man named Ron Kelly made a film on what I was doing. From there, this appeared on Telescope, it was a prime time television program, and some producers at the National Film Board saw me and invited me to come over to the Board. From there, the first time they sat me in the theatre and they said, “tell us stories like you tell children” and all the producers and directors were there. It was from there that eventually I was asked to be a consultant on a film. I quickly knew I wasn’t going to do that again because I realized I was just being used to open doors and this wasn’t very good. Because education was my main concern I started working there in a studio, which was called Multimedia, and everything they made was film strips for teaching in the class room. That is how I started working there. Some people really encouraged me to do this at the Film Board because they said to me, “these films are going to go on their own” and, you know, I didn’t know anything about film. So this was my school there and I learned there how to do it.

At first I would work with one nation and do all that was most important to them in terms of their history. I did two of those educational kits, one in Quebec in Manawan and one in B.C in Mount Curry. After that I started doing all kinds of films, but the first film that I made was Christmas at Moose Factory with children in this residential school in James Bay. That’s how and I’ve been in film ever since. That’s 42 years ago.

2.    Why have you created so many documentary films about First Nations people?

Because it’s really the strongest and the most powerful place to be in terms of establishing a history of a people, and to hear their voices themselves, and to have a way of teaching through films because many people don’t have access to libraries, it’s changing now, but at that time it was very poor in that sense. Through film you can teach anybody anything- it’s very powerful.

3.    That leads to my next question, which was do you feel there is power in filmmaking as a storytelling method, and why?

It is the place to be and at this time all young people want to do is look at T.V., you know, it’s a media and everybody is very attracted by that. If you are able to do things that have value that they can show on television, it brings up the sense of who they are, and the importance of knowing your family, who you are, your language and all those things.  I don’t know of any other more powerful place.

4.    What is the importance of research and attention to historical detail when you are making a documentary film?

It’s most important. Research is very important and very exciting. I do all my own research. Discovering and finding out all kinds of things- it’s like a big puzzle. You’ve been through many things in your life and for a long time you don’t understand how you got there, and you know, when you start reading and doing research and talking to people, you find out things that- it’s like your mind is just so- it’s so incredible what happens when you’re learning. It’s just- the most important thing in life I think is learning and listening.

5.    What sort of role does ‘compassion for your subject matter’ have in your films?

I think that you have to love. The documentary world is very difficult and very long to do, but it’s wonderful and fascinating. You really have to love people and be patient and really love what you do, and really listen for hours and hours with each individual that you’re working with. Of course, you develop a relationship that lasts a lifetime.

6.    On the other side of the coin, what do you respect when working with another person on a creative collaboration?

It’s very important to develop a good relation with your crew because if you don’t it’s a lot of trouble.  You have to be careful who you work with and who you bring with you. In my case, I go to a lot of isolated communities and I have to trust the people that I’m with. I don’t want them to start talking loud, or- when you are interviewing somebody if somebody comes in and asks a question, it turns and you can ruin your whole interview. All this dialogue has to be done before going anywhere with them. They always know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it so they’re part of what I’m trying to do. That’s very important.

Also, it’s very important to have a very good relation with the editor that will be working with you because an editor can switch and change the story very easily. I have an incredible editor that I trust like my own sister, so it’s wonderful. That’s very important.


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3 thoughts on “ALANIS OBOMSAWIN

  1. Randy Robinson says:

    What an engaging article!

  2. jocelyne robinson says:

    I was asked once, if there was a woman that I admired. I replied, ‘Alanis of course’! On a chance meeting I met Alanis and was amazed at the depth of her sincerity in the course of our conversation. When you meet Alanis it is as if you knew her all your life. Thanks for sharing the interview.


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