File | Alanis Obomsawin | Their legacy voices (2 articles)

Barking pierces the silence, followed by the furious blowing of a wind that sounds arctic. The shy voice of a toddler is heard. “My mother makes bannock bread. She’s ready to put it in the oven. Then we’ll eat it. »

So begins Christmas at Moose Factoryfirst film – a short documentary – directed by Alanis Obomsawin, in 1971. Filmed in a residential school in Northern Ontario, the work gives voice to Cree children who, like some 150,000 young people from the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, were separated from their parents in the 19the and XXe centuries in Canada. With the consequences that we know…

The speech. The voice. The sounds. This is what constitutes the heart and raw material of the filmmaker’s films. Funny observation when we remember that the seventh art is that of the moving image. But not for Alanis Obomsawin. The voices of First Nations people are part of his legacy.

The importance of sound

“Every time I start a film, I always make the sound, alone with the people with whom I am going to work,” she explains in her NFB office overflowing with archives and memories. I think it comes from the fact that I was raised in Odanak, a small community where, in my childhood, there was no electricity or running water. We spent our evenings in the kitchen with oil lamps – two or three children around the table listening to the stories told by the adults. »

As most of the men were hunting and fishing guides, these stories were populated with animals. “And because there were no images, I was able to appreciate the sound of their voices,” she says of these storytellers.

Sensitive to the modulations of voices, Alanis Obomsawin wants spectators to be just as sensitive to the “beauty of speech”.


Alanis Obomsawin

For me, it’s like waves in the sea. People’s voices change depending on what they say. It is sometimes peaceful, sometimes very hectic. All feelings pass through words.

Alanis Obomsawin

We will have understood that Christmas at Moose Factory is one of 28 films, including some previously unreleased, collected in the box set that the NFB is dedicating to its emblematic filmmaker. And that the beginning of the film is typical of the Obomsawin way.


In 2018, a mural in tribute to Alanis Obomsawin was inaugurated at 2330 Lincoln Avenue in Montreal.

Another example: in the first seconds of Restigouche Events, the sound of police officers walking in step, batons in hand, does not bode well. In his language, an old Micmac says: “They are everywhere… They collect the nets. I take my axe… I draw a line forbidding them from going any further. »

In Jordan River Anderson, the messenger, bird calls, the sound of water and the sound of a drum introduce us to the landscapes of Norway House, Manitoba. And in the documentary Mother of so many children, Samson Neacappo, an old Cree man from Fort George, in James Bay, sings in a gentle lament: “From the earth – from the waters / It is by loving each other that our / people became great. »

Their side of the story

Voices are the first vector to tell the history of the First Nations through those who are members and have lived it.

“Education is the most important thing,” says Obomsawin when asked what pushed her to pursue cinema. This is the truth spoken by our people. It is the voice, the word of a nation. I haven’t changed the way I work. »

  • The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has already dedicated an exhibition to the works of the artist and director.


    The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has already dedicated an exhibition to the works of the artist and director.

  • A work by the artist and director


    A work by the artist and director


This Ariadne’s thread that she offers is not only woven from ultra-mediatized stories, such as the conflicts of Restigouche and Kanehsatake. The filmmaker also looked at the struggles waged by individuals for causes unknown to the general public.

Thus, she is currently working on a portrait of Dr Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada’s first Chief Medical Officer of Health. At the beginning of the 20the century, he fought, in vain, to make the authorities aware of the unsanitary conditions of boarding schools.

Mohawk filmmaker and screenwriter (The Dep, For you Flora), Sonia Bonspille Boileau confides that the work of Mme Obomsawin has marked out his own route. “She was super inspiring,” she said. I was 11 years old when I experienced the events in Kanehsatake, my community, and I was outraged to see that the media rarely or not at all offered our perspective. Alanis’ documentary moved me and relieved me. For the first time, I saw that there was room to tell things from our point of view. »

An NFB employee for 16 years and close to the filmmaker, Lily Robert describes – with a laugh – her friend as an enigma. “We never stop discovering and appreciating it,” says the director of communications and public affairs.


Lily Robert, from the National Film Board, with the filmmaker

Alanis never takes a vacation. She makes her films, her narration, her production. She was a singer, a storyteller, and did engraving. When she is not filming, she travels the world giving conferences and meeting children. She never stops.

Lily Robert, director of communications and public affairs at the NFB

At 91, the director, decorated with medals, prizes and honorary diplomas, is delighted to see changes in the way First Nations are perceived. “There is an openness, a listening, which did not exist before,” she says. Canadians want to see justice for our people. I couldn’t have said that 10 years ago. The changes are immense. »

To what extent was the main interested party a vector of these changes? Perhaps a biography will tell one day. An American author, Randolph Lewis, devoted a monograph to him, never translated.

“The box set of his films gives a version of his work,” notes Lily Robert. Now we would like her to tell her life story. »

But Alanis Obomsawin is so busy…

Alanis Obomsawin: A Legacy


Alanis Obomsawin: A Legacy

Alanis Obomsawin

12 DVDs

A tribute to the REGARD festival and an exhibition at the MAC

REGARD, the international short film festival which takes place annually in Saguenay, will pay tribute this year to Alanis Obomsawin by presenting a retrospective of four of her films, namely Christmas at Moose Factory, My name is Kahentiiosta, Richard Cardinal: the cry of a mixed-race child And Bill Reid remembers. The event will take place on March 23 at 1:30 p.m. Mme Obomsawin will be on hand and will participate in a question and answer session at the end of the screening. The 28e edition of REGARD will take place from March 20 to 24.

Furthermore, after being inaugurated at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and after visits to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the University of Toronto Art Museum, the exhibition Alanis Obomsawin: Children need to hear another story will be presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in Montreal from September 26, 2024 to January 26, 2025.

View the exhibition brochure at the University of Toronto Art Museum


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