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Alanis Obomsawin – The Cinema of Sovereignty

May 31, 2010

Above: Alanis Obomsawin, center, led a special master’s class on documentary filmmaking at the UW. The event was cosponsored by the Native Voices Program. Daniel Hart, Chair/Director, Canadian Studies (front left), and Luana Ross (second row, far right), co-directors of the Native Voices Program, facilitated the workshop. Photo by Noreen Thiele.

By Clementine Bordeaux

Clementine Bordeaux is a member of Rosebud Lakota (Sioux) Tribe located in South Dakota. She is a Communication student with the Indigenous Documentary program, Native Voices.

A rock star came to visit the UW, or at least it felt that way for indigenous cinema enthusiasts! Alanis Obomsawin, a master documentarian from the Abenaki Nation, came for a two-day engagement with students, faculty and fans the weekend of February 26. The weekend was filled with excitement, encouragement and illumination.

In the weeks leading up to her visit, I was filled with anxious anticipation, trying hard to spread the word of her visit. For almost four decades Alanis has created influential films at Canada’s National Film Board. Her work embraces strong social themes and speaks in an uncompromising yet inspired voice. With her repertoire of more than twenty documentaries, it was easy to feel awestruck. Each film highlights the beauty, struggles, and triumphs of sovereignty her First Nations people of Canada have endured.

Obomsawin has received countless awards both in Canada and internationally. Most notable is Canada’s Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, received in 2001. In 2008 she was the recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. She even has an award in her honor at theimagineNATIVE Film Festival held in Toronto each year.

Waben-aki: People from Where the Sun Rises an award winning feature length film, was screened Friday evening to an eager audience. The film covers the experience of Alanis’s community from first contact through present day. The film introduced us to the many adversities Waben-aki people face. Alanis is unique in portraying characters with charisma and human flaws but never objectifying them. We were not disappointed in Waben-aki.

Alanis is soft-spoken and eloquent. During the question and answer portion of the night the audience was attentive, hanging onto her every word. Alanis did not lecture; rather she had an open conversation with the audience. Many students expressed their appreciation of her words and welcoming demeanor. The highlight of the evening was hearing Alanis articulate her pride in seeing so many Indigenous students in higher education – she encouraged us all to continue our studies.

Saturday afternoon Alanis led a master’s workshop on filmmaking. It was a smaller, more intimate seminar set up as an informal master’s class. It was a delight for the faculty and students who attended. We watched a short film, Gene Boy Came Home, about a Vietnam veteran who finds solace in his journey back to his community. The film created a very strong emotional response in the audience, especially for the Vietnam veterans who were in attendance. The conversation after the screening introduced us to the joys and burdens of making thought-provoking films.

I was overcome with admiration for Alanis Obomsawin with each new question, film and conversation. She is compassionate, clever and full of spunk. I hope that on the verge of my eightieth year I will have as influential a film repertoire and as much intelligence and class as Alanis Obomsawin.

This project was supported, in part, by funding from the Center’s Title VI grant, U.S. Department of Education, Office of International Education and Graduate Program Services.