Alanis Obomsawin has spent more than five decades listening. Now, an ever-expanding circle of viewers, scholars, critics, and fans is listening more closely to her. It's time.
We are proud to present Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin as the centrepiece of the 46th Toronto International Film Festival. But more than proud, I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to learn from Obomsawin’s films, to champion them at our festival, and to witness her dazzling ability to communicate hope and resilience with both life-affirming fire and a sparkling sense of humour.
Her voice as a filmmaker, musician, visual artist, and activist has been consistent. She tells the stories of how Indigenous people in Canada have resisted injustice and abuse inflicted by the most powerful authorities a country can have, and how those people have fought back in the streets and in the courts. Most of all, her more than 50 documentaries made with the National Film Board show how Indigenous peoples have drawn on rich, deep traditions going back thousands of years to assert their presence as vital communities determined to continue on for thousands more years into the future.
Her landmark film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance won the Best Canadian Feature Film prize at the 1993 Toronto International Film Festival. From her 1971 debut film, Christmas at Moose Factory, to the more recent Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013) and We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016), Obomsawin has illuminated the lives and stories of Indigenous children.
She does this by listening. Her approach to crafting documentaries is as singular as Frederick Wiseman’s or Mike Leigh’s methods of making fiction films. Obomsawin begins with joining her subjects’ community without any filmmaking gear. She goes first to listen. The next step is to document their stories by recording audio only. That intimate relationship between speaker and listener, on a foundation of trust already built, then leads to introducing a camera. It’s no surprise that watching her films is like being invited into their world as an honoured guest. She has earned that for us.
Obomsawin’s commitment to craft and community has made her one of Canada’s most important filmmakers, and one of the world’s most significant Indigenous artists. She is a Companion of the Order of Canada, a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec, and the holder of many honorary doctorate degrees. This year, she is the current Glenn Gould Prize Laureate, awarded by the Glenn Gould Foundation.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 calls to action to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Several of them call on Canada’s institutions to promote greater knowledge of the history of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, “including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.”
To engage with Alanis Obomsawin's films — to watch them, think about them, talk about them, share them — is one step towards reconciliation. This remarkable artist has led by example, shining a path of generous empathy, of boundless curiosity about the human experience, and of righteous anger when that’s needed. We invite you to enter her world, and share it.
— CAMERON BAILEY
Artistic Director & Co-Head, TIFF