Eighty-one year old Canadian documentarian Alanis Obomsawin has made 42 documentary films for the National Film Board of Canada, focusing on the First Nations experience, capturing the struggles for fishing and land rights, education, housing and the kinds of things those of us in “the south” often take for granted. Isolated Aboriginal communities have many problems as a result. The most notorious case is that of Attawapiskat, the northern Ontario town that brought shame to Canada with its bleak poverty and inhumane conditions. Obomsawin immediately documented it in The People of the Kattawapiskak River. The second documentary,Hi-Ho Mistahey!, which makes its world premiere at TIFF, covers the appalling lack of educational facilities at Attawapiskat. It follows Aboriginal children as they take their demands to the Canadian government and then to the U.N.
We got a chance to speak with Obomsawin about the subject and the film. Read our Q&A below.
This is your second documentary on Attawapiskat, this time focusing not on housing, but the appalling lack of educational opportunities there. That is passion.
Alanis Obomsawin: First of all, education has always been very important to me. I had my own experience there and try to do things that will influence changes, especially in the past that history denied us. The way they taught in the classroom was horrifying. I just always had in my mind to influence changes, so children have always been the most important thing to me.
Shannen Koostachin, an Attawapiskat teen, campaigned for education, but died in a car crash. You’ve helped keep her legacy alive.
AO: When she went to the Minister of Indian Affairs, she was told schools were not their priority. She was brilliant, she said she would never give up and she went to children in the classroom to tell them about the fact that there are children who are not getting their rights to education. When you look at the film and see children from all over the country, the children who won the battle for her… it’s very moving. I’m very moved by the children and everything they say. The teachers were helpful and it became an incredible mission. When I went to Attawapiskat I was alone and walking around and got anguished because I could see the poverty and you feel terrible. I fell in love with the children in the school.
The government finally agreed to build a school but it’s taken years. Is it built yet?
AO: They’re building it. It should be ready in 2014. They said it would take two years from the start and it is very cold up there in the winter. They made a protection because the weather is around 50 below zero. I’ve never been so cold in my life, watching them work during winter, so I was amazed.
You’ve documented the First Nations experience in Canada for 40-some years. Is it your life’s work?
AO: I’m torn about it. I know what I can do and what should be done and trying to do as much as I can while I can. Documentary films are so important and this is where you can learn if you really follow the story to the end. It’s incredible. It educates and I just feel it’s the best genre because it’s so powerful.
What are some of the most important issues you’ve covered?
AO: Injustices. I dislike injustices, I like to expose them. And the history is very important. In every film I make there is a section telling the history of the area, because the children don’t know their history. It’s for all people, not just families take care of their history. Parents should tell their history to their children. I’ve seen 40 –50 year old men researching. That’s the responsibility. And every time I’m working with somebody I say to them “Let’s look at your old pictures” and they invariably say “Oh, yes, they’re in there under the bed or in an old shoebox. The place is a mess”. I tell them I’ll be back in a day or two. And we start looking and I say “See this photograph? Depending on how it was made, look what’s happening, it’s erasing itself with time.” If they say they don’t remember who it is or what the picture is, that’s horrifying. Your own history should be written on the back of the photos so you know who is who, who the parents, grandparents, are, the why and where and what they brought to the family. It’s important for all. They put their old photos away like old rags and then they find out how important they are. They are priceless. Then they can say this one did that and you can learn about a family and what happened. I never get tired of people telling their story.
Are you pleased Hi-Ho Mistahey! is at TIFF?
AO: I am so happy. You can’t imagine what it’s going to do when the people see it and the children and the cause. The people will be aware, especially later on when it’s seen in isolated places. I know why I’m here and I do it. I just turned 81 and I’m so thankful that I’m healthy and have so much energy. I’ll do anything for children. I’m so thankful. Right now, I’m working on five films at the same time.
Hi-Ho Mistahey! screens at TIFF 2013 on Saturday, September 7 at 4:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Monday, September 9 at 2 p.m. at Jackman Hall, and Saturday, September 14 at 6 p.m. at Jackman Hall. For more information, visit tiff.net.