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TIFF Women Directors: Meet Alanis Obomsawin

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood September 13, 2013 at 10:00AM

Alanis Obomsawin was born in New Hampshire and was raised near the Odanak Reserve at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. She has produced over thirty documentaries on Aboriginal rights issues for the National Film Board of Canada.
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Hi-Ho Mistahey!
Hi-Ho Mistahey!

Alanis Obomsawin was born in New Hampshire and was raised near the Odanak Reserve at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. She has produced over thirty documentaries on Aboriginal rights issues for the National Film Board of Canada. Her directing credits include Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (93), Rocks at Whiskey Trench (00), Is the Crown at War with Us? (02), and Hi-Ho Mistahey! (13).

Hi-Ho Mistahey! is playing as a part of the TIFF Docs program.

Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of your film playing at TIFF.

Alanis Obomsawin: In 2008, a young girl from the Northern Ontario Cree village of Attawapiskat made her voice heard throughout Canada. Frustrated by the poor conditions of her school, 14-year-old Shannen Koostachin started a campaign for a proper facility in her community.

Shannen and her friends gave speeches and invited thousands of young Canadians from across the country to write to the federal government, demanding the right to a safe and suitable education for all children. But with the campaign in full swing, tragedy struck in 2010, when Shannen was killed in a car accident. The community was in shock but determined that Shannen's fight would continue. They carried Shannen's dream from one end of Canada to the other and beyond--all the way to the United Nations in Geneva.

Shannen's is an extraordinary story. She felt she wasn't getting anywhere with adults and government, so she went to her fellow children. They felt so responsible for other children that they continued the fight--and won the battle.

In Hi-Ho Mistahey!, I tried to show a community seeking justice and fair treatment. The school issue is at the core of film, but I also wanted to show the context of everyday life in Attawapiskat, by filming the adults and other children. Living in an isolated place like that, there are only one or two stores and everything is extremely expensive. If they didn't hunt, I don't know how they would survive. I don't know why it's so expensive for Canada to send supplies up north, yet we import goods from China to be sold at such low prices. I don't know why we can't get organized and make transport and the support of isolated communities cheaper and less difficult.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

AO: Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, helped me greatly in learning more about the urgent issues facing Attawapiskat and communities like it. My main interests have always been children and education, and Cindy and I talked a lot about the educational situation.

I'd describe my own school experience as "hell." I'm 81 years old now, so you can imagine how bad it was back then. Canadian history, as taught in school, was really anti-First Nations people, depicting us as savages and really designed as a campaign of hate, I believe. So as I grew up, I really wanted to create change. I didn't want children to go through what I went through. So I toured schools, going to classrooms to meet students of all ages to talk about history and perform songs in Waban-aki, English and French. I am where I am today because my fight for justice and equality started with children and education.

I went to Attawapiskat alone with just a tape recorder. When starting a film, I always begin with one-on-one interviews. I visited the classrooms and saw for myself what was happening there. I started making Hi-Ho Mistahey! in 2010, then dropped it for a while to film The People of the Kattawapiskak River, which looked at the same community's housing crisis that made headlines in Canada. "Kattawapiskak" is the region's proper name. Then I returned to finish Hi-Ho Mistahey!

You'd have to be a pretty cruel person not to feel for what's happening in this community, and Shannen's story is incredible. If the audience wants to know how to engage, more letters to the government are very helpful. When it comes to elections, politicians are very happy to make promises but we have to keep reminding them what their jobs are.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge?

AO: It was -50C when we were shooting in the winter. I've never been so cold in my life. I didn't have proper boots until the last part of shooting on location. They felt like I was walking on wood but they were warm and light, and I stopped having frozen feet.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

AO: My advice is based on documentary filmmaking but I think it applies to everyone. Be aware and figure out if this is what you really want to do and why. It can be difficult and you have to really believe in what you're doing, but if you're passionate, no one can stop you. You have to be patient and a good listener of someone else's story. You can't go in thinking you know the story in advance because it wouldn't be true. The people themselves know the story and you have to be willing to listen for hours. I never get tired of hearing people's stories, how they live and survive.

WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

AO: I have been "accused" of being a point-of-view filmmaker, which I am. I don't hide it. Anyone who says they don't have a point of view is lying. You see what the situation is and you try to help, and you let the people speak for themselves, and of course there are choices made in the editing room.

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

AO: We make films because we want them to be seen. Film festivals are great because you're with the audience in the same room and you're sharing a feeling. But everything is changing and growing with the internet, and it's amazing what's happening. When the National Film Board of Canada offered The People of the Kattawapiskak River for free on its website for a week, 50,000 people watched it. I have people writing to me from all over the world.

I'm also very involved in the marketing of the films, including the DVD packaging, the poster design and the official texts.

WaH: Name your favorite female directed film and why.

AO: Qatuwas: People Gathering Together (1997) by British Columbia First Nations filmmaker Barb Cranmer. It's a fantastic story about a historic canoe journey, very moving and you could tell that she was really listening to the people.

This article is related to: Toronto Film Festival, Women Directors, Alanis Obomsawin, Hi-Ho Mistahey!


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