“So much history can be lost if no one tells the story — so that’s what I do. I tell the stories. This is my way of fighting for social change.”
Alanis Obomsawin is one of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers. She is a pioneer in indigenous filmmaking and has made over 50 films so far in her career. Born 31 August 1932 near Lebanon, New Hampshire, she comes from the Abenaki nation and began her career as a professional singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board (NFB) in 1967. Her award-winning films address the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada from their perspective, giving prominence to voices that have long been ignored or dismissed. A Companion of the Order of Canada and a Grand Officer of the Ordre National du Québec, she has received the Prix Albert-Tessier and the Canadian Screen Awards’ Humanitarian Award, as well as multiple Governor General’s Awards, lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees. In 2019, she was awarded our Artist of Distinction Award from the Vancouver Biennale.
Why did Alanis Obomsawin begin to make films?
She didn’t set out at first to become a filmmaker—what she wanted was to create change.
In 1966, she was a singer-songwriter and storyteller, and was profiled on the CBC program Telescope for her local activism and “near superhuman” efforts to fund — through donations, concerts and lectures — a swimming pool for her community on the Odanak reserve after the local river was deemed too polluted and when indigenous children were forbidden from using a nearby pool in a white community. She wanted to bring change on this issue, so that indigenous children may have access to swimming pools like white children. After noticing her in the CBC Telescope feature in 1966, Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall, producers at the National Film Board (NFB), hired Obomsawin as a consultant on projects that related to First Nations peoples. In 1971, she directed her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, and in 1977 she became a permanent staff member at the NFB. Since then, she’s made over 50 films and counting.
To look at her body of work is to see a representation of a tremendous period of change for Indigenous people and nations in Canada. This cannot be overstated. The impact of her films on Canadian film making and recognition of indigenous voices and perspectives in this country has been felt across the country over her long career. “I think her whole career is an act of decolonization,” explained Jesse Wente, director of the Indigenous Screen Office. “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.”
Committed to redressing the invisibility of Indigenous peoples, Alanis Obomsawin’s filmmaking style resides in the unique ability to pair Indigenous oral traditions with methods of documentary cinema. “As a child,” she says, “I wondered ‘What can I do?’ The children need to hear another story than what the school books told. Stories about savages, scalping, the Devil’s language… I’m going to tell a different story with children.”
Director’s Top Picks for Young People
We asked Obomsawin to select her top choices for films for young people from her vast body of work. As Cinefest grows, we will continue to add more resources for her films. These and all of her films can be screened for free on her director’s page on the National Film Board of Canada website.
Children’s Educations Series
The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012)
Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013)
Trick or Treaty? (2014)
We can’t make the same mistake twice (2016)
Our People will be Healed (2017)
Walking is Medicine (2018)
Jordan River Anderson: The Messenger (2019)
For Younger Audiences
Christmas at Moose Factory
Age 12 and up
People of the Kattawapiskak River
Incident at Restigouche
Is the Crown at War with Us?
My Name is Kahentiiosta
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Rocks at Whiskey Trench
Mother of Many Children
Trick or Treaty?
Our People Will Be Healed
Walking is Medicine
Waban-Aki: People From Where the Sun Rises
When she travels, Alanis Obomsawin actively makes a point to visit schools, and speak to students across Canada. Her interviews offer valuable insights and context for her films. These short interviews and articles below offer glimpses into her filmmaking process and how she has seen Canada change over the last 50 years. Teachers are encouraged to use these resources in the classroom alongside their chosen films so that students may learn about Alanis Obomsawin the person, through her own words.
Where the Sun Rises: The Films of Alanis Obomsawin. Jason Ryle, National Film Board of Canada 2019.
A very useful short article on her films, her approaches to film making, and the impact her work has had in this country.
Alanis Obomsawin, 2008 GGPAA laureate, talks about her career and receiving a GGPAA in an interview on May 29, 2015. She explains her strategy for interviewing compassionately, why she uses sound before interviewing on camera, and why she doesn’t make films for the audience.
Documentary Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin talks about her career and what inspired her to make films on Aboriginal issues. How does she work with her crews, how does she work with communities?
Filmed in the 60s, some of the language in this CBC clip is outdated. If using this clip in the classroom, invite students to notice and discuss the kind of language or biases they see in the interview. How does the reporter talk about Alanis, her community, and culture?
7.58 min in French
This French interview was filmed in the 60s, some of the language and line of questioning now seems outdated. If using this clip in the classroom, ask students to notice the kind of language or biases they see in the interview. How does the reporter talk about Alanis, her community, and culture? How does Alanis respond?
Questions and Connections
Key questions can be used before film screening or after, to help students see connections between their own lives and the ideas and perspectives they see in Obomsawin’s films. Select a few of the questions below, tailoring to grade level.
- How much do you know about First Nations’ history? Do you know anything already about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada?
- Were you born in Canada? If not, where were you born? How important to you is that country’s culture, heritage, and language to you and your family?
- Do you speak more than one language? If so, do you feel more connected to another nation’s culture (and history) when you speak in that language? Do you speak that language with senior family members, such as aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents?
- Do your friends have cultural traditions and customs that are visibly and audibly different from those of your family? If so, can you elaborate? Do you participate with your friends and their families during special cultural events? If so, would you like to share some of your thoughts and experiences?
- Have you personally ever felt or experienced a loss of human rights? If so, what happened, and how did you deal with the situation?
- Imagine if somebody took you away from your family/community and you had to live and attend school in a community far away from all your family and friends. How might you feel? What would you do?
- What if you were forbidden from speaking the language you have been speaking since you were a baby? What if you were forced/ordered to learn and speak a new language?
- What types of music do you and your family listen to together? Do you make music together? Have your grandparents shared any music with you? Has your family taught you any particular songs and/or dances? Does having a musical heritage make you feel more connected to the past?