Alanis Obomsawin reflects on a life of filmmaking

Hot Docs outstanding achievement award recipient Alanis Obomsawin has made a career of documenting Aboriginal stories at the National Film Board of Canada. This week nine of her films are the subject of a retrospective which will include the world premiere of her latest, Professor Norman Cornett - 'Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?'. Before the big event, realscreen spoke with Obomsawin about what the retrospective means to her and what is at the root of all of her documentaries.
April 29, 2009

The retrospective on Alanis Obomsawin at this year’s Hot Docs is the latest in a list of recognitions for the documentary filmmaker, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada and winning assorted jury prize awards, grand prize awards and best documentary awards from various festivals, ranging from the American Indian Film Festival to the International Amiens Film Festival. Nine of her films will screen at the upcoming Hot Docs festival in Toronto, including 1993′s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, 2006′s Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises and the world premiere of her latest, Professor Norman Cornett – ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’.

What does this Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award mean to you?
It’s such a great honor. This Hot Docs festival is so serious in terms of encouraging documentary filmmaking and constantly having this incredible festival where so many of the documentarians are represented. It’s not just a festival; it’s a very special one.

How does Professor Norman Cornett, a doc about a McGill professor, fit in with the rest of your work?
I think it’s very much a part of my work because my first concern when I began to make films – and previously when I was singing – was to try to make our [Aboriginal] history known [and that] was mainly through education. I’ve always been very concerned with teaching and what the young people learn about the history of this country.

I’m very moved by Dr. Cornett’s way of teaching. The first time I went to his classroom was in 2001 and after that I went every year, several times a year. His students would look at one of my documentaries, they would write an essay on it and then he would invite me to his classroom and I would meet the students and [we would have] long discussions.
He’s also invited many other Aboriginal people to the class. A lot of artists, politicians and writers, people in all sorts of disciplines. For me, that’s such an important inclusion in terms of having our own people in the classroom debating, and when I was asked to direct [the film] I felt that I really wanted to do it to give him back something that he’s given us.

Does having a retrospective make you look back on the body of your work and reflect?
I’m so busy all the time working that I haven’t seen [some of the] films in a long time. It brings a lot of very important memories. All the films I made [have] very important reasons for them and they’re all just very dear to me.

Are you still making movies the same way as when you started?
The basic root of all [my films] is really the same in terms of not only making sure that people have their own voices but to use documentary work as a tool to fight for different things, mainly social change, exposing injustices and making sure that people have their own memories and their own way of being.

What are some of your influences?
I get my inspiration from my own people and their own stories, and it’s important that those stories get told.

Alanis Obomsawin will receive her outstanding achievement award at Hot Docs’ Awards Gala, Friday May 8 at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto. The Hot Docs festival runs from April 30-May 10. For more information visit

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.