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Issue 152

"The Children Have to Hear Another Story" - Alanis Obomsawin
by Ryan Ferko

Spanning more than five decades worth of material, “The Children Have to Hear Another Story” (2022) is a comprehensive retrospective celebrating the cinematic voice of Alanis Obomsawin and the blurry lines between artist, activist, musician, and filmmaker that have defined her career. Starting in the ’70s, Obomsawin developed a process of recording conversations on tape long before the arrival of any camera—part of a careful method of relationship-building that would come to lie at the core of her film works. Removed from the cinema and installed in the thoughtfully designed, elliptical exhibition space of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Obomsawin’s work takes on an affecting physicality, turning the patient duration of her films into objects of great scale. The result is a generous, cumulative experience echoing Obomsawin’s approach to filmmaking, where each film feels resolved unto itself, while also being in dialogue with the works that surround it.

Introduced in the exhibition texts as activist cinema, Obomsawin’s practice presents a complex range for what such activism can look like. In Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), Obomsawin presents an unflinching portrait of 17-year-old Richard Cardinal, who tragically took his own life after being forcibly removed from his family and shuttled between white foster homes. Interviews with Cardinal’s brother explaining the daily abuse experienced at the hands of foster families are interspersed with conversations between Obomsawin and Cardinal’s foster parents. Sitting in a prairie farm landscape in the mid-’80s, these white farmers speak English with a slight accent, suggesting their own recent arrival to this landscape. The violence of Canada rests in these bleak details: where European settlers carry out the work of forced assimilation and cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples, and then sit down in an attempt to explain themselves. Cardinal’s diary, however, rings out as testimony. His detailed explanation of the muddy basement cellar where he was forced to sleep exposes the violence that these families, and the Canadian government, assumed would go unseen.

Among Obomsawin’s best-known works, like Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), the exhibition also presents lesser-known short documentaries made for television. In “Old Crow” (1979), Obomsawin constructs a lyrical portrait of a Yukon community. Structured around candid interviews and voice-over narrated letters written by a community elder, a drifting, handheld camera leads viewers to a surreal, playful conclusion wherein children make papier-mâché masks and descend into a theatre performance. These moments reveal the joyful burst of life characteristic of much of Obomsawin’s work, and as if to enforce this sense of life beyond the screen, the masks themselves populate the exhibition space.

The exhibition also subtly presents the fissures that lie beneath the clarity and resolve of Obomsawin’s films. In a 1987 internal memo, Obomsawin protests the National Film Board’s (NFB) decision to quietly cancel plans for Charlie Cardinal, Richard’s brother, to accompany a tour of the Richard Cardinal film in schools across Canada: “I am amazed at how easily money and programs are made available for non-Native people to go into Métis communities and reserves, to seek information and try to make contact to develop a relationship between the Board and our people. These programs are never questioned, no matter how much of a failure they end up to be.” The tone of Obomsawin’s memo starkly contrasts newspaper clippings that appear throughout the show, alongside a small citation: “courtesy the artist.” In these clippings, Canadian newspapers express shock at the story of Richard Cardinal and call for inquiries into the foster system. Poignantly, we see Obomsawin amassing her own media archive, which, when presented alongside her films, situates the political climate within which these films were made, while critiquing the colonial institutions that supported their production.

The NFB and the CBC loom heavily over the exhibition, at once producing and distributing these works while also representing the settler-colonial state as public institutions. In one CBC program from 1964 called The Observer, a white host smirks at the audience while wheeling out a tray of bear meat after Obomsawin performs a song live on the program. “That was beautiful, but I didn’t understand the words,” says the host. Here, we see the paradox of these perceived benevolent institutions, defined by a desire for understanding that stops short of addressing actual sovereignty, and where Indigenous cultures are only celebrated when contained and controlled. While the clip is from early in her career, its position at the end of the exhibition invites a parting reflection on Obomsawin’s ongoing ability to forge a space for Indigenous storytelling from inside such troubled institutions. “Progress is a very beautiful word that the white man has for himself,” says Obomsawin, in response to the host, as a red CBC logo glows on the bottom right of the screen.

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors encounter another CBC interview from 1966, wherein Obomsawin laments the future of Abenaki peoples: “I don’t know, maybe it will all just be French-Canadian. No nation wants that, to not exist.” Inside another benevolent institution, the House of the World’s Cultures, this idea of threatened sovereignty should resonate with European audiences. Shortly after the opening of Obomsawin’s exhibition, tens of thousands marched through nearby Tiergarten park, calling for peace in solidarity with Ukraine, while carrying signs denouncing imperialism, resource extraction, oil economies, and occupation. As a discourse unfolds on social media about whiteness, what a refugee may look like, and who might be welcomed into a fortress of Europe, another question is raised by these films: whose sovereignty is worth marching for?

Alanis Obomsawin has made a lifetime of work celebrating Abenaki, Mohawk, Métis, Cree, and Mi’kmaq cultures and resistance. Simultaneously, she has created a detailed portrait of the violent, cyclical logic of settler colonialism: a portrait that directly implicates Europe. In a CBC interview from 1982, Obomsawin explains how she met an Indigenous man in northern Manitoba who spoke Cree, English, French, and German. “Can you imagine?” she asks, as if to emphasize the resilience of Indigenous languages in the face of multiple attempts at forced assimilation. Now, these films made by an Abenaki artist in English and French return with German subtitles to the same continent that imposed its languages, religion, and culture on Turtle Island. Obomsawin’s voice and the certainty of her image making ring clearly: as she states in a 1970 letter to the NFB, “[W]e don’t want anyone to speak on our behalf anymore.”

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