Six Short Films: The L’il’wata and Manuwan series
by Alanis Obomsawin
About the Film Series
In her early as a filmmaker with the National Film Board 1970s, Alanis Obomsawin began a series of short films for students featuring the personal narrative, voices, culture, history and knowledge of members of the Líl̓wat Nation in BC, and later the Atikamekw Nation in Manwan, Quebec.
The L’íl’wata series was conceived and produced as a series of educational filmstrips in the early 1970s. Filmstrips were widely used in educational settings until the early 1980s, and the NFB was a leading producer of multimedia film strip kits on a wide range of subjects. Obomsawin, an established artist but a relative newcomer to the world of cinema, would use the filmstrip form to begin her ambitious documentary career – one based on giving First Nations control over their own image while telling their own stories.
Working in solidarity with the people of L’íl’wata – approaching them as a fellow Aboriginal rather than an outside “expert” – Obomsawin reframed Indigenous experience from the inside, providing young Canadians with a more complete understanding of the country’s first peoples.
Selections from The L’il’wata Series
1975 | 7 min
A series of still images follows master Líl̓wat basket maker Mathilda Jim, from the harvesting of materials to the creation of a functional work of art. Told in the Lil̓wat7úl language, this short documentary evokes the powerful connection between language, knowledge and culture.
1975 | 7 min
Expert fishers for their entire lives, Líl̓wat Elders Cora and Daniel Wells share their deep knowledge of salmon fishing, cleaning and smoking.
1975 | 2 min
The farming practices of residents of the Líl̓wat Nation near Mount Currie, B.C., are presented in a series of snapshots that illustrate the fertility of their territory and the people’s deep connection to their land.
1975 | 4 min
Accompanied by a song in the Lil̓wat7úl language, we follow a woman as she makes gwùshum, a Líl̓wat dessert and a very special treat. From the harvesting of the xúsum (soapberries or salmonberries) to the construction of the corn-husk whisk, a dish is created that is equal measures mouthwatering and awe-inspiring.
Selections from The Manwan Series
1972 | 5 min
Utilizing engineering ingenuity that is centuries old, Atikamekw elders Agatha and Cézar Néwashish build a small-scale version of a birch-bark canoe. With their expert hands, a stunning work of art is created.
1978 | 7 min
The remarkable construction of the venerable snowshoe is demonstrated from start to finish. Atikamekw Elders Mariane and Athanas Jacob take us into the forest to select the tree that will become a fresh new pair of snowshoes.
Unit Title: Narrative Drawings, Exploring Traditions
Time required: 8-10 lessons
This unit plan has been designed for students to learn from 6 short films by the internationally acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin, showing the skills, traditions and experiences of different First Nation communities across Canada. Depending on the age of the class, this can lead to a deeper exploration of resourcefulness, sustainable leaving and resiliency that can be learned from many different cultures and world views.
In these documentaries, Obomsawin highlights different aspects of Indigenous experiences, ways of living and their interconnection with the land they live on. Obomsawin’s lens offers an insider look into Indigenous knowledge and narratives, as a powerful counterpoint to the narrative in our popular culture usually told from the colonizers’ perspective. In this unit, students viewing these vignettes of Indigenous life in Canada, will inquire about their own cultural practices, and find those practices that are intergenerational, connected to land and sustainable. Finally, students will be encouraged to reflect on how and why these practices may have changed over time.
BIG IDEAS with Film Inquiry Questions
These questions can be adapted into a worksheet to fill in during or after film screenings:
- Who is the filmmaker, what are they known for?
- What is this film about? What are the main messages the filmmaker wanted us to understand?
- If you could ask the filmmaker a question, what would you ask?
- What were you thinking as you finished watching the film?
- What part of the story told by the film was the most powerful or memorable? Why?
- Sometimes fiction and documentary films explore important social or political issues. Describe any specific social or political issues that affect the story. How do these issues impact the people we saw in the film?
- Documentaries can show us new ways of understanding an issue or topic in our world. Describe an aspect of the film that showed you something you hadn’t seen before, caused you to think in a new way, or helped you understand something more thoroughly than before.
- What particularly appealed to you in the cinematic presentation of the film, such as how particular scenes, images, or sounds were presented?
- For documentary films: what conventions does the filmmaker incorporate in this film? Do they use voiceover, re-enactments, archival footage, interviews?
- Are there multiple viewpoints? Do they agree or contradict each other?
- Who are the dominant voices in the documentary? Are they official sources such as government representatives, or are they experts of another kind? Or are they everyday people from the street? What is their connection to the documentary’s subject?
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 from questions and tailor them to your 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?