The Canadian Art Database

Robert Houle

Alanis Obomsawin

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 990 words ]

Storytelling is one of the most traditional forms of communicating personal and collective values and mores among the First Nations, and the Abenaki, known as the people of the dawn, or easterners, have a storyteller who uses film and song. She is Alanis Obomsawin. Born in New Hampshire, she grew up on the Odanak Reserve, and now lives in Montréal, where for the last twenty-five years she has worked as a producer, director, and writer with the National Film Board of Canada.

However, Obomsawin began her career in a very different way. Thirty-two years ago she was a professional singer at Town Hall in New York, and on her 1988 record album Bush Lady, she sardonically mimics the voice of a white 'candyman' to the rhythm of her own hand-drum accompanied by an eerie blend of flute, oboe, and cello:

Hey bush lady,
          Look at her
Isn't she beautiful?
She's my lady
          She's all mine.

In this humorous manner, she handles a demeaning racist / sexist slur in a very diplomatic way. She appropriates the stereotypical image of 'bush lady', the sexual titillation, and builds a bridge of cultural understanding. As the methodology used in Bush Lady demonstrates, Alanis, as a woman, is already comfortable with the inherent contradictions of human emotions, and able to incorporate them in her art; she has an edge as an artist in participating in the postmodern cultural discourse, which is also about contradictions. She brings this edge to her films.

Obomsawin calls film a 'place' where native people can talk to each other about their losses, their memories of injustice, their desire to share what is good about their way of life, and with that sharing as viewers of her documentaries perhaps arrive at a better appreciation of how the dispossessed, dislocated, and disoriented try to come out of an abyss. This social realism is what makes Obomsawin narratives potent and cathartic; they are like the axiom which says one has to deal with the poison before a process of healing can begin. To her as director / producer / writer, film must attempt to transform people and society; it must be an artifice of social reform.

Obomsawin's work has a calm, measured tone; this is often accomplished by using precise narration in which she always writes and speaks herself, thus constructing a clear filmic statement. Her Christmas at Moose Factory is filled with flashes of visual poetry provided by children's drawings; here, Moose Factory, an old settlement on the shore of James Bay, appears from the child's perspective, it is a place that no one has ever seen before. There is an irresistible charm in the voice of a little girl telling the story by 'reading' the pictures of her classmates. Our guide then takes us to church, where we hear the children singing carols in soft, sibilant Cree.

In Mother of Many Children, Obomsawin traces the cycle of life from birth to childhood, puberty, young adulthood, maturity, and old age, through introducing the viewer to girls and women from many different First Nations across the country. It is a family album of native womanhood, portraying a matriarchal society which has been pressured for centuries into adopting different standards and customs, a modern society where the rites of puberty have been replaced by the prom.

And in Incident at Restigouche, she demonstrates how a conflict between people and government can turn into a grotesque theatre of racial incrimination. In the summer of 1981, a virtual battalion of 550 Sureté du Québec policemen in full riot regalia marched into the Micmac reserve of Restigouche and proceeded to take over. The Quebec Ministry of Fisheries had come to the conclusion that the Micmac fishermen had exceeded their quotas. Obomsawin points out that the basic premise of the film was that the Micmac had fishing rights, which should have been respected. As an ironic postscript, the Minister of Fisheries at the time of the incident was arrested for fishing without a licence, and was subsequently acquitted because the Quebec fishing law was not well enough defined.

Finally, in Poundmaker's Lodge: A Healing Place Obomsawin once again shows how her patient, intimate cinematic style can provide a rare and uncompromising look inside the troubled hearts and minds of men and women who have descended into a living hell through alcohol and drug abuse. Their poignant stories are eloquently portrayed as they 'go home' to Poundmaker's Lodge to find ways to heal themselves with the help of native counsellors. The ancient ritual of the sweatlodge provides a perfect vehicle for spiritual renewal.

Being an autochthonous Québecker, Alanis Obomsawin has always had a special concern for what happens in her native province. Through her documentaries, which are situated in Québec, she has observed events for the past twenty-five years. The grim subjects of her films: suicide, substance abuse, violent police raids on native land, and the homeless attracted to the lure of the city lights, are treated with compassion. She believes that Elijah Harper's interventionist 'No' to Meech Lake, and the Mohawk Summer of 1990, were a 'Yes' to an honourable and significant place at Canada's constitutional negotiating table for the First Nations. She has said: 'The events at Oka created more racism on the one hand, but also caused more people to want to understand.'

 — the subject of her most recent film, Oka, premiered in Land, Spirit, Power.

Abenaki, born 1932 in New Hampshire and grew up on the Odanak Reserve near Sorel, Québec. Lives in Montréal, Québec. Producer, director, singer. Associated with the National Film Board since 1967. Has produced twelve documentary films on native issues. Awarded the Order of Canada in 1983.


Maurie Alioff, 'Dream Magic: Alanis Obomsawin after Oka.' Matrix #33 (Spring 1991), p. 5-9.

Maurie Alioff and Susan Schouten Levine, 'The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin.' Cinema Canada (June 1987), p. 10-15.

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

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