Because of Alanis Obomsawin’s selection as the 2009 recipient of the Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Retrospective Award, there’s a wonderful opportunity of looking back over her four-decade career and discover anew both the power of her filmmaking and its effectiveness in bringing change for Canada’s indigenous peoples.
If the opening pair of films are any indication, her message is as potent as ever, but a few of the lessons require some much-needed relearning by today’s policymakers.
Broken family ping pong
Richard Cardinal: Cry From the Diary of a Métis Child
1986, 29 min.
Obomsawin’s searing indictment of “State Knows Best” for the children of failed homes (in this instance, the Cardinal family of Fort Chippewa) is as moving now as the day over two decades ago that 17-year-old Richard Cardinal finally (at least two other attempts ended in failure) managed to rid himself of his systemic hell-on-earth, hanging himself in a stand of birch which stood nearby to his 28th “home” managed by largely white Albertan social workers whose time-honoured solution to chronic bed wetting was moving the despondent child to his next loving family.
Fortunately/incredibly/sadly, Richard’s gift to abused/abandoned/ignored children everywhere was to chronicle his steady downward slide in a diary that demonstrates more maturity and understanding than all of those professionals entrusted with his care. (Still, none of those who earned fees or stipends “caring” for the misunderstood boy were forced to return any cash as a result of their inability to hear or heed his obvious cries for help.)
Central to the telling is elder brother, Charlie, who admits early on (after one of the politician-moving-to-action slides of the lifeless body swaying ever-so-dead in the tranquil forest) that “I can’t feel anymore.”
A pivotal moment comes when (through his own words) Richard realizes that as soon as his eldest brother turns eighteen, he will be abandoned by the state—obviously, having reached the age of majority, he’s ready to face life on his own. Just days ago, JWR reviewed a twenty-first century “fictional” account of what that ‘freedom” currently means (cross-reference below), proving once again, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Do as I say …
Incident at Restigouche
1984, 46 min.
“Do as I say not as I do” comes immediately to mind in this David vs. Goliath chronicle of the Québec separatist government (replete with “Prime Minister René Levesque” ganging up on the Mi’kmaq of Restigouche (now Listuguj) over a paltry six tonnes of salmon (compared to hundreds more “harvested” before the remainder ventures into the St. Lawrence River). But make no mistake. It’s not about the fish. Brilliantly interrogated by the trilingual Obomsawin (to their employment peril, few Mi’kmaq speak French) then Fisheries Minister Lucien Lessard depletes his and his government’s stock in mutual trust by insisting that with an overwhelming statistical majority, the rights and aspirations of French Québecers trump those of the minorities whose only fault was to live in the same postal code long before their religious and political saviours set foot in their New World.
The mockery of a just trial (following the reams of archival footage stemming from the twin raids in June 1981) and the subsequent dismissal of the guilty verdicts by the Québec Superior Court, only reinforces the duplicity of those seeking sovereignty at the expense of those less numerous within their realm. Thank goodness that could never happen again … JWR