Alanis Obomsawin and Amanda Strong Discuss the Future of Indigenous Film
The two artists explain why they're believers in each other's work, as part of the RBC x TIFF Someday Conversation Series
While Alanis Obomsawin and Amanda Strong work in radically different mediums — documentary and stop-motion animation, respectively — they remain fierce champions of each other’s work. Upon being presented with the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award in January 2017, Obomsawin named Ontario-based mixed-media artist Strong as her choice to receive the prize’s $50,000 in post-production services. “She obviously has important stories to tell,” the renowned documentarian said at the time.
Obomsawin, 85, isn’t done telling stories of her own: her 50th film, Our People Will Be Healed, was selected for next month’s Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. (Festival attendees can also see Obomsawin in a live In Conversation With… session on January 17, where she will discuss her prolific career as a documentarian and activist.) The film is a stirring portrait of Norway House Cree Nation, a community 450 km north of Winnipeg that works collectively to undo decades of trauma caused by the residential school system and the ongoing crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Filmed with pure empathy for the first peoples of Turtle Island, the film offers a hopeful way forward towards a path of self-determination and change.
Amanda Strong, who has cultivated a striking style of stop-motion animation and puppetry in her decade-long career as a filmmaker, is also in Canada’s Top Ten, with Flood, one of five shorts funded by the CBC film series Keep Calm and Decolonialize (curated and produced by programmer Jesse Wente). Strong’s film tells the story of a youth named Thunder who fights against a group of European settlers who are trying to colonize North America. Rousing voiceover narration written by Indigenous hip-hop artist Craig Frankie sees Thunder’s journey point towards the past and present of Indigenous resistance.
For the TIFF x RBC Someday series, we asked the two filmmakers to offer their thoughts on the future of Canadian film and how they overcame early roadblocks in their careers. When asked how Indigenous communities can use cinema as a tool to create revolution and change, Obomsawin responded: “Indigenous communities know. I don't think we have to teach them anything. They know what they need to tell their story.” Here are the two powerful filmmakers in their own words:
What inspired your original journey into filmmaking?
Alanis Obomsawin: By the time I was 15, I knew there was something wrong with the system. I was upset by what they were teaching in the classroom about our people and our history, which was full of lies designed to create hate. The only thing I could think of was that I knew my history, I knew a lot of stories, I could sing, so I thought: "I have to be present in the classroom." I began to visit hundreds of residential schools across the country and the more I did, the more demand there was for it. This was in 1960, the year we all became citizens of the country for the first time. Suddenly, we could do pow wows and hold ceremonies without being punished, or going to jail. We could gather together. Previously, the Indian Act said you couldn’t gather in a group of more than three people, otherwise you'd be arrested.
Around 1960, I started doing a campaign to build a swimming pool on my reserve [in Odanak, Quebec] because our children were not welcome at the swimming pool in the next village. This became a very difficult thing for me to do. The independent filmmaker Ron Kelly did a film on me in 1966 and it appeared on the CBC program Telescope. The National Film Board invited to be a consultant on their children’s programming. I knew nothing about film and had no interest in it, but when I saw that they had a studio especially for classrooms, I got very excited. As I started looking at their films made for Indigenous people, I noticed that our people never talked. That really upset me, so I told him: "You know, our people have a voice. They can speak. They know how to express themselves." I started making educational kids’ films, then documentaries. The people who drove me to do this were my own people. It was their stories and my relationship with them that made me want to make sure they would have a voice.
Amanda Strong: Obviously, I come at filmmaking in a different time. We are very fortunate to have people like Alanis, who have done a lot of work for us. Like Alanis, I wasn’t interested in film: I was really interested in sports and had high marks in school. One day, my grandfather passed away and I found all of his old cameras and photos of my grandmother. I randomly switched paths for college and decided I was going to go into photography. I started with self-portraiture to express myself and find out who I was, but then I realized I didn't want to be a photographer and got my degree [at Sheridan College] in illustration. It was through these programs that I started experimenting with film. I learned that making a film is about having a really big vision where you get to utilize all these different skillsets. There was still that idea of an image but now I could bring it into motion, adding sound to tell a bigger story. My work started out as very experimental and personal, but has been evolving ever since.
Alanis: It's so beautiful what you're doing, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you. I really appreciated hearing your story; it's really powerful.
Alanis, what do you love about Amanda’s work?
Alanis: I love the way she works and that she feels a responsibility of telling the history of where she comes from, her family, of her people. On top of that, the images she makes are incredible. What she's doing with these puppets is such a beautiful art, which will attract not just children but every age. I also love the sound of the voices she has picked to represent and tell her stories.
Amanda: I have been very fortunate to have travelled with Alanis. I cherish any time I've gotten to spend with her and I appreciate all the work she's done because it has helped so many people. Alanis is so important to everybody, not just filmmakers. How are you able to make a feature every year? At your age, it's incredible.
Alanis: I don't know how either. (Laughs) I think it's because my passion is the still the same as the first time I made a film. I know time is so precious, so I always make sure I can give the time that it takes to my subjects. I get a lot of demands to make films in different communities. I want to do as much as I can because I feel I owe it to life to continue for as long as I can.
Why is it crucial for Indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories?
Alanis: It is more than crucial — it's a must. Our people were made to feel invisible and silenced for so many years and it's like a bomb right now. If there was ever a time for an Indigenous person to do something they dream about — film, singing, painting, sculpture — the doors are open in every institution. We worked very hard to get here and for the first time, especially in the last five years, I feel that Canadians are really listening. People want to see justice and are interested in hearing from the people themselves. This is why my new film is called Our People Will Be Healed. For me, this need [for storytelling] is more profound than hope.
Amanda: I agree there's no excuse anymore for non-Indigenous people to tell an Indigenous story, unless they've been invited, or if there's a very specific reason. Even if you come from a reserve, or a very remote community, there are still ways and programs to make sure you can tell your story. I didn't experience the hardships that Alanis and other people have endured to get us to the point where someone like myself has quite a bit of access. But even since I've started making films, which is getting close to 10 years now, it's changed. Alanis talked about imagination. You're dealing with a people who have access to imaginary worlds and truths we've never seen before. If you look at our Indigenous filmmaking world, it’s one that's dominated by women. They're way beyond half of who's telling and directing our stories and that's also exciting.
We’re also going back to ideologies and way of telling stories that aren't Western, or linear. I think we're breaking some of the norms of how people have been taught to tell a story, which doesn't always coincide with Indigenous storytelling. For people to see that it's okay, it's acceptable, and there's space for it now, that's what excites me.
When you talk about new modes of storytelling, how do you see the industry changing? What do you want to see more of from Indigenous filmmakers?
Alanis: I don't want to say "it should be this" or "it should be that." Let the people's spirit express themselves. Whether it's animation, documentary, fiction, or something new you wish to create, people should have the freedom to express themselves. There shouldn’t be someone controlling what we should say, how we should say it, when it should finish, and when it should start. We're tired of that and I don't want to be a part of that way of thinking. I think children should be making films. It's so wonderful to hear how they figure things out. I just get very excited with any young person who is doing anything. People who do nothing usually just sit there criticizing the ones who do.
Amanda: I couldn't agree more. It’s not even about putting people into new boxes, it's about having that freedom not to be bound to what we've been taught before. We all have that ability to be our own individual selves with our own ways expressing how we the world. Our most effective stories come from when you allow people to be their true selves. I think there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of programming, or ways that we are allowed to make films. But with each generation that passes, more space and options are becoming available.
What roadblocks have you faced in your career — even in terms of discovering your own voice as a filmmaker?
Alanis: If I told you some of the stories from when I first started, your hair would go straight. It was very hard and very difficult, and I fought for every step. But guess what? I won. At that time I was shocked, because every time something bad would happen I would think: "It's because I'm Indigenous." I soon discovered the fact that being a woman was another problem. That really shocked me. At the same time, I’m really thankful for the National Film Board, because no matter what, for all this time, they've supported me. There were a lot of wars that I was a part of; I just wouldn’t give in.
Amanda: There's always going to be challenges, even within our own systems. I've been very fortunate to have a lot of positive, nourishing mentors who have encouraged me to keep going through any roadblocks. The National Film Board has also supported a lot of my recent works through their filmmaking assistance program and have given me a lot more than what I was supposed to receive. I’ve learned you can always ask for more, or fight for what you need to tell your story.
As a filmmaker, I’ve had to fight for the integrity for my work, as well as my process. It’s a lot more time-consuming than live-action — there's a lot more people involved, it's really expensive, and people don't always understand what you're going through to make your story. I'm very fortunate to work with a large team who are instrumental in the works that I create. I’m constantly learning and being inspired and that's what keeps you going. To have those people around me is what makes it worth it and makes me not want to give up.
How can filmmakers like yourselves use cinema as a tool to create revolution, change, and healing?
Alanis: The reconciliation has done an incredible job of changing the attitude in this country. To have Indigenous people finally admitting or telling their stories has helped a lot, but a lot of them don't want their story made into a film, or a book. It is our job to hold their hands because there's gotta be a continuity of what has happened so far. For the people who told their story and now want it erased, it should be erased. This is an individual right.
Amanda: That's a great point about the sacredness of storytelling. Oral histories or stories from communities are still viewed by some people as sacred knowledge. That has to be respected, always. I like to imagine and create worlds where it’s not necessarily about shooting something that's already there. It’s just one way that works for me, so I think it’s about encouraging or letting people of all ages know there are many ways to tell a story. What we have to do now is continue to build support systems and have lateral kindness and lateral love towards each other. We can't be hating on each other, putting each other down, or competing. There's a bigger fight than the fight within ourselves.
Alanis: The difficulties will not come just when you first start, but well into your career. I'll just give you one example: In 1970, I was working on an educational kit in Manawan, which is a reserve in the Laurentian mountains. The people there are the Atikamekw people. One day, I went to the band office and said I wanted to do research on a situation there. They had asked the government to have a piece of land declared as a reserve because the government was on their hunting territory. Indian Affairs was renting the land [and would] cut down the trees to make paper, on hunting territory that belonged to a family. The animals were leaving, there were lots of fires, and it was really horrifying — the people there were starving. I asked the chief and councillors: "Do you give me permission to ask at Indian Affairs if there are any documents made in the creation of your reserve? I want to read these things." They said, "Of course we give you permission. " So I went to the archives in Ottawa and asked the person in charge: “I'm working on this reserve in Manawan and want to see what you have."
He told me, "Alanis, we have boxes of files from Indian Affairs, but we're not allowed to have anybody to read this stuff without their permission." I said to him, "Just give me the stuff. I'm going to go through it and we'll see after." I started reading all this material and it was really horrifying. In the end, I chose 17 papers — mostly letters — and went back to the director and said, "I want good copies of this." He said, "Do you see that guy over there who's making copies? You have to go to him. I cannot give you the papers unless he says it's okay." So I told the guy who I was, what I was doing, and that I wanted good copies of these 17 papers. He took the file and said, "Come to my office tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock." The next morning when I came into the office he said, "I'm so sorry, but I lost the file." I said: "Well, look at my face” — I was furious — “I predict that you will find the file."
I went straight to the parliamentary office of Indian Affairs. At that time, Jean Chrétien had become the Minister of Indian Affairs. So I went to his office and told his assistant: "I have to see the minister." She said, "He's in the Chamber and I don't know what time he's going to come back." So I said, "Do you see that chair in this hallway? I don't care if I have to stay all night, I'm not going to leave until I see him." I waited until six o'clock. I was sitting there stewing and I was getting to be very dangerous. Finally, at a quarter to eight, Jean Chrétien came in. I could hear them talking. Finally, his assistant told me: "You can come in now." Well, I told Chrétien what I just told you — the story about that guy who lost the papers. He made a phone call. I went back to the same place the next morning and this guy practically threw the file at my face. I told him: "Oh my god, poor you. You must have had to work really hard to find this file."
I know a lot of our people would've just given up, but I had so much passion in me and I wasn't afraid of anyone. I just thought, "They're not going to treat me like this." You have to have a lot of nerve. That's how I made my way.