When All the Leaves Are Gone

by Alanis Obomsawin

About the Films:

When All the Leaves Are Gone – 17 min

As the only First Nations student in an all-white 1940s school, eight-year-old Wato is keenly aware of the hostility towards her. She deeply misses the loving environment of the reserve she once called home, and her isolation is sharpened by her father’s serious illness. When Wato’s teacher reads from a history book describing First Nations peoples as ignorant and cruel, it aggravates her classmates’ prejudice. Shy and vulnerable Wato becomes the target of their bullying. Alone in her suffering, she finds solace and strength in the protective world of her magical dreams.

Based upon the personal experiences of Alanis Obomsawin, When All the Leaves Are Gone powerfully depicts the feelings of exclusion, hurt, and loss suffered by the young Wato. Her voice-over commentary presents a child’s perspectives on her situation, and the black and white film footage (a skilful blend of current and archival material from the NFB and CBC) provides vignettes of life in Quebec in 1940. Wato’s situation is a difficult one, and one which was experienced by countless numbers of First Nations children, whether in reserve, residential, or urban schools.

 Salmon – 3 min:

Expert fishers for their entire lives, Líl̓wat Elders Cora and Daniel Wells share their deep knowledge of salmon fishing, cleaning and smoking. They speak in their traditional language, and Obomsawin shows their process through still photos.

This short is part of the L’il’wata series. In the early 1970s, at the outset of her documentary career, Alanis Obomsawin visited the Líl̓wat Nation, an Interior Salish First Nation in British Columbia, and created a series of shorts that provide personal narratives about Líl̓wat culture, histories and knowledge. She combines personal interviews she conducted, with still images to share personal and candid indigenous perspectives in her early films.

When All the Leaves Are Gone
2010 | 17 min

When All the Leaves Are Gone, by Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada


1975 | 3 min

Salmon, Alanis Obomsawin, by provided by the National Film Board of Canada


BIG IDEAS with Film UnitNarrating Stories Through Moving Images

Time required: 9 sessions
Grade(s): 10-12

Unit Overview:

This guide has been designed to familiarize students with a film as a unique text and media that can tell a story, raise awareness and impact the viewers. Inspired by Alanis Obomsawin the celebrated Abenaki film director’s documentary, When All the Leaves are Gone, students are invited to work together and share a story of their concern through creating a 2-minute short film.

The following activities are best suited for senior photography class, digital media class and film studies class. Depending on each class’s course of study this guide can be considered a complete unit or could be used as a section of a bigger unit that is anchored on raising awareness about important social and environmental issues. Due to the number of steps involved in the practical aspect of the project from taking pictures, adding audio files and editing, the proposed project is better suited for the second or the third semesters. Download the PDF for the unit plan at the bottom of this page.

BIG IDEAS with Film Inquiry Questions

  1. Who is the filmmaker, what are they known for?
  2. What is this film about? What are the main messages the filmmaker wanted us to understand?
  3. If you could ask the filmmaker a question, what would you ask?
  4. What were you thinking as you finished watching the film?
  5. What part of the story told by the film was the most powerful or memorable? Why?
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. What particularly appealed to you in the cinematic presentation of the film, such as how particular scenes, images, or sounds were presented?
  9. For documentary films: what conventions does the filmmaker incorporate in this film? Do they use voiceover, re-enactments, archival footage, interviews?
  10. Are there multiple viewpoints? Do they agree or contradict each other?
  11. 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.

  1. How much do you know about First Nations’ history? Do you know anything already about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Have you personally ever felt or experienced a loss of human rights? If so, what happened, and how did you deal with the situation?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
Teacher's Guide PDF: Download