23 August 2012

The Sovereign Cinema of Alanis Obomsawin

What are the attributes of a cinema of sovereignty that can be teased out of Alanis Obomsawin's long career for the benefit of other indigenous media producers? What qualities have allowed her to connect with audiences both in small Native communities and at elite film festivals? The first is that her work is the product of a sovereign gaze, one that is imbued with the self-respect and unique ambitions of a self-defined sovereign people, even if this sovereignty carries with it a complex and contested legal status. Rejecting the encroachment of external media nationalisms, her cinematic vision reflects an indigenous sovereign gaze, a practice of looking that comes out of Native experience and shapes the nature of the film itself. The gaze is sovereign, I argue, when it is rooted in the particular ways of knowing and being that inform distinct nationhoods. It is sovereign when cultural insiders are the controlling intelligence behind the filmmaking process, no matter how much non-Natives might help in various capacities. It is sovereign when Native people have, as Atsenhaienton puts it, the ability to use 'our terminology to express our self-determination—how we will exist, how we relate to each other and to other people.' And it is sovereign when it works against what one scholar has dubbed the '"whiting out' of the Indigene—the projection of white concepts and anxieties about the primitive on to the Aboriginal Other—effected by the white camera eye' in Hollywood and Canadian feature films, mainstream documentaries, and traditional ethnographic cinema. By focusing attention on that which has been overlooked, concealed, or distorted in the mainstream media, Obomsawin’s cinema of sovereignty provides an ideological rebuke to dominant practices of looking at Nativeness and, in this sense, troubles the visual impulses of white settler cultures in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Another lesson that we can glean from Obomsawin's work is that a cinema of sovereignty must speak in the language of equals, assuming a 'nation-to-nation' relationship between historically unequal parties such as between the Mi'kmaq nation and Canada. Neither deferential nor hostile in this engagement with the citizens of another nation, the filmmaker chooses instead the traditional diplomatic route of mutually respectful dialogue, even when such rhetoric conceals mutually distasteful ambitions. As befitting this middle-ground approach, she refuses to indulge in the simplistic demonization of all things Western that, in the wake of 9/11, scholars have begun to call Occidentalism. Occidentalism reduces the West to an inhuman malignancy, thereby inverting Edward Said's classic notion of Orientalism, in which Arab and Asian peoples were objectified and exoticized from afar. Obomsawin does not hate Canada or wish harm upon its citizens—far from it. She has a deep and perhaps surprising fondness for the country in which she has lived for almost all her life. She merely wants Native polities, whether Mi'kmaq, Abenaki, or Cree, to be placed on an equal footing in the public imagination, the political process, and the law within Canada and the international community.

To achieve this goal despite the contested nature of indigenous sovereignty, Obomsawin includes a strong pedagogical element in her documentaries. Like members of other minority groups, Native people have often shouldered the burden of educating the world about their own histories and aspirations, and Obomsawin has been no exception: for almost forty years her explicit goal has been to create a 'learning place' in her cinema for Native and non-Native alike. In this sense her work provides a space for pedagogical engagement that runs parallel to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s notion of research as a 'significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the west and the interests and ways of knowing of the other.' In a moment I will discuss 'ways of knowing' in Obomsawin's work, but first I want to touch on her presentation of Native 'interests.' As is apparent in all her films, Obomsawin believes that the economic, political, and social interests of First Nations have been neglected to the point of crisis, whether in James Bay, Restigouche, Oka, or elsewhere. In response, she strives to fulfill what Ward Churchill has called the imperative task of Native filmmaking, namely, to reveal 'the real struggles of living native people to liberate themselves from the oppression which has beset them in the contemporary era.'

Obomsawin has been an exemplar on this front since the early 1970s, having never flinched from the harsh realities of Native-white relations. As the film curator Bird Runningwater has pointed out, her major contribution in films like Is the Crown at War with Us? is her exposure of the continuing brutality of state violence against First Nations, a fact that most viewers would associate with the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first. 'The Native person as a victim of attack is often described,' Runningwater has said. '[Obomsawin] shows the images of these attacks happening in modern times.' Wisely, Obomsawin seems to aim her exposure of such issues at more than one audience, creating a cinema of sovereignty that is at once local, national, and global in orientation. Citing the examples of the Waiapi in Brazil and the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, scholars have written about the many instances in which the empire 'speaks back' as indigenous people use cultural products 'to reaffirm ethnic and local values over the homogenizing forces of global media networks.' For politically minded Native filmmakers such as Obomsawin, the battle is inevitably fought on multiple levels and with multiple publics in mind. It is local because her work respects the tribal particularities at hand and seeks to assist in immediate, short-term efforts (such as the Mi'kmaq fishing crisis); it is national because it engages the national imaginaries of a particular First Nation as well as of the Canadian state; and it is global because it is part of a larger insistence on indigenous rights around the world that scholars have begun to call international indigenism. At all levels her goal is to demonstrate the legitimacy of Native claims and to insert Native perspectives into global mediascapes.

Embedded in the notion of Native perspectives is a question of philosophy. I believe that Obomsawin’s desire to reveal the legitimacy of Native claims rests on an unstated epistemological foundation, one that is essential to any indigenous cinema of sovereignty: a profound respect for Native ways of knowing and remembering. In each of her films since Christmas at Moose Factory, Obomsawin has adopted a posture of careful listening as she records Native voices and stories. This is in keeping with her general tendency to place Native oral traditions on the same level as non-Native forms of writing and remembering the past. In this regard her films might resemble the testimonial tradition in Latin America in working to sanction the claims of alterity and the manner through which these claims are voiced. Another analogue has emerged within recent Native American studies: her documentary project might serve as a cinematic equivalent of what Eva Garroutte calls radical indigenism, a 'distinctly American Indian scholarship' that is radical, not in the Marxist sense, but in the etymological sense of taking us to the root (radix) of the 'dominant culture's misunderstanding and subordination of indigenous knowledge.' Garroutte argues that colonial legacies have deformed the academy and made it an unwelcome home to alternative ways of knowing: too often as scholars approach Native cultures, the exigencies of 'rational inquiry' demand that they strip away the sacred and the perplexingly unfamiliar to create 'legitimate' forms of intellectual knowledge. In opposition to this Eurocentric standard, radical indigenism invites scholars to experience 'tribal philosophies' (rather than just studying them) and to discover legitimacy and rationality where social scientists have often presumed their absence. This experiential brand of scholarship also requires a level of personal investment that goes well beyond the ethnographic norm of 'field work' to an even deeper intimacy and investment with 'tribal relations' (what Jocks terms residing as a relative). Although this demanding ethos of radical indigenism would be open to Native and non-Native alike, Garroutte expects that it would resonate most deeply with Native scholars: 'I believe it is their passion that can ignite the first flame—the flame that blazes up to illuminate a radically new vision of scholarship and new possibilities for Indian communities.'

I believe that Obomsawin’s cinema of sovereignty transposes the humbling lessons of radical indigenism onto the sometimes arrogant art of filmmaking. In the spirit of what Garroutte describes, Obomsawin works from a position of unqualified faith in the merits of indigenous worldviews as well as from an enduring connection to the communities where thoseworldviews hold sway. Also in the mode of radical indigenism, Obomsawin respects what she hears in Native communities and puts it at the center of her filmmaking practice, instead of imposing the voice of academic experts, strikingly few of whom appear in her films, even to offer sympathetic pronouncements. Unlike documentarians who lean heavily on academic talking heads to validate the points of ordinary people, Obomsawin has created a cinema of sovereignty in which Native expertise is allowed to stand on its own, free from patronizing attempts to buttress it from the outside. She has always been critical of outside experts who mine Native communities for data without really knowing or respecting the world in which they are operating: 'If you are going to a community and you are learning and you want to write a thesis about what you are learning, you have got to have some respect for the people you are working with... [You can] not think that they are inferior to you because they did not go to university.'

Her willingness to accept Native communities on their own terms carries over into her presentation of Native individuality: Obomsawin refuses to homogenize Native subjectivities to create what one might sarcastically call the universal, omni-purpose Indian. For example, her latest films highlight the extraordinary diversity of Mi'kmaq people in terms of class, education, appearance, and attitude. Some of the men in Is the Crown at War with Us? and Our Nationhood seem to fulfill stereotypes of defiantly macho, camouflaged warriors, while others come across as soft-spoken, contemplative, and intellectual—and more than one fit into both camps. In acknowledging such complexity Obomsawin captures the diversity of Native experience in a way that confounds mass media stereotypes, replacing Native absence with an unexpected presence. Her work is a passionate response to the black hole in the mass media where the actual Native should be but where instead there is only a strange simulation that Gerald Vizenor calls an 'indian.' Musing about the best-selling books in which faux indians provide a decorative New Age motif, Vizenor has suggested that 'the tragic stories of an indian absence are worthmore to publishers than a real sense of presence and survivance.' In other words, most audiences expect fulfillment of their hoary stereotypes about Natives, and the 'media simulation' of the indian serves this purpose, saturating popular culture in Canada and the United States despite lacking any real 'native connection or constituency.' In the hands of someone like Obomsawin, a cinema of sovereignty can attempt to make this connection, to address this constituency, to fill in the hole where the indian has lived with something more than ersatz projections. It is about the creation of space for Native actuality.

Obomsawin’s rejection of the mythic indian provides an important antidote to a problematic notion floating through recent anthropological discourse, the idea that films on indigenous people need to indulge the preconceptions of outsiders in order to have an impact. In making a documentary about the Mi’kmaq in the early 1980s, the anthropologist Harald Prins decided that 'exotic imagery' is what gets Native faces on television, and that, without a dose of primitivism, a so-called cultural survival film would have little chance to appear before a mass audience. For this reason, he argued in the pages of Visual Anthropology in 1997 that such films must carefully pander to the Western fetish for romantic Native stereotypes, if only as part of a pragmatic media strategy that 'promotes a people’s general public appeal.' Barring such indulgence, Native people will have lost a rare opportunity to engender much-needed sympathy among the dominant society, where a quiet yearning for an Edenic alternative has created an 'ideological fund of goodwill towards indigenous peoples as "victims of progress"' struggling to hang onto a more 'harmonious,' 'natural,' and 'innocent' way of life. Given these assumptions, Prins believed that a well-designed cultural survival film could tap into this fund of goodwill as the first step toward political mobilization around Native issues.

This is where the cinema of sovereignty must diverge from Prins's model of cultural survival filmmaking: it is not willing to accommodate itself to Western norms for the sake of being heard, at least not as Obomsawin has practiced it. Although Prins's model might have been a reasonable first step toward developing more autonomous forms of indigenous media when it was first articulated in print in the mid-1990s, even then it was based on some troubling notions. Who would have advised civil rights leaders in the 1960s to draw on the abundance of white goodwill reserved for African Americans who seemed to fit Sambo or Stepin Fetchit stereotypes? How different from that ugly scenario is the manipulation of Native primitivism for even the best political motivations? Moreover, such pragmatic pandering could have ill effects over the long haul, as Prins himself concedes when he notes that, while 'exotic imagery' in the cultural survival film is politically potent, it could undermine the way of life that it seeks to dramatize. Quoting Edmund Carpenter, Prins concludes his article with these lines: 'All this is good fun until one realizes that some day [indigenous peoples] will know their heritage through such films... The power of film is such that they may someday accept this as a valid account of their ancestry.'

To me, Obomsawin's career seems to suggest that primitivism is not necessary for political impact or mass appeal, given that her work has had demonstrable political effects in several instances as well as significant audiences on television, in hundreds of schools and universities, and at dozens of film festivals in Canada and elsewhere. As far as I can tell, her cinema has never accommodated Western prejudices to make itself heard (even if it wisely avoids antagonizing its largest potential audiences with a strident tone or a unnecessarily militant posture). Rather than painting Native people as victims in need of Western salvation, her work makes its appeal on what Obomsawin seems to regard as a universal playing field of reason, compassion, and decency—not some phony metaphysical plane on which tree-hugging, spirit-questing, magical Indians are served up like an endangered species on the Discovery Channel. Her Natives are never languishing away in a far-off disappearing world that some white liberal viewers might like to preserve; instead, they are presented as citizens of an aggravated and increasingly organized sphere of difference in the very backyard of mainstream Canada. Rather than wielding Otherness as a tool to pry open a wellspring of Western empathy, Obomsawin's cinema of sovereignty instrumentalizes it along the lines that Dick Hebdige has traced (perhaps foreshadowing Garroutte's concept of radical indigenism). The great cultural studies scholar has talked about sites where the Western we is invited to learn from the Native them with neither cynicism nor sycophancy. According to Hebdige, Otherness is instrumentalized when it is imagined as a viable alternative, a living possibility, not as a colorful deadend on the byways of cultural diversity. Obomsawin does just that, on-screen and off. In her career the refusal to indulge primitivist expectations extends beyond the cinematic text to include the filmmaker herself, who—in her person as much as in her art—defies and transcends the puerile fascination with the Native filmmaker as a technological curiosity. In her public demeanor she is worlds apart from the exotic novelty act that, according to Rachel Moore, some have seen in the spectacle of a Native person with a movie camera. As such, her work spurns rather than inspires neocolonial twitters and patronizing glances. It commands respect rather than curiosity.

Thus far, Obomsawin's career seems to offer ideal lessons in the creation of representational sovereignty, but things become somewhat messier when we turn from the symbolic to the pragmatic, to the realm of funding streams, mailing lists, and ticket prices. In an ideal world a cinema of sovereignty would be autonomous in production and responsible in distribution. Obomsawin has a mixed, but instructive, record on this front. Like most indigenous media producers, she has had limited success in maintaining the 'sovereign' aspect of making and showing her work. For example, the Mi'kmaq nation neither produced nor disseminated the two documentaries that I discussed above—indeed, few First Nations would have the resources to make this material commitment to Obomsawin's work. Nor did the Mi'kmaq have final say over her films in a way that would place representational sovereignty fully in their hands. Never willing to relinquish the ultimate authority for what appears onscreen, Obomsawin does not reach the Platonic ideal of egalitarian cooperation in the artistic process, although she comes reasonably close in some ways. When it comes to documenting the lives of other Native people, she might not open up the process to absolute democracy, but she is patient, she is respectful, she hires Native interns, she is culturally appropriate as only a cultural insider can be, and she zealously protects Native perspectives in everything she does at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Some might quibble with her decision to remain at the NFB, but I think that she has played her hand just right. Working within the NFB is a golden sacrifice that she makes to ensure stable funding and widespread distribution. Despite such a potentially problematic arrangement, she has not had to compromise her ideals in ways that I can detect, and I suspect that this is because of the uniquely privileged role that she has created for herself at the NFB. Some combination of her talent and the institution's symbolic economy (i.e., the political need to have a token Native person somewhere in its ranks at a time when she was an almost solitary presence) has protected her over the past three decades and counting.

What Obomsawin has created at the NFB under these conditions is quite remarkable: a semisovereign realm for First Nations' perspectives within the heart of the federal communications apparatus. Hers is an exceptional situation, one not easily replicated, and she has mined it for all it is worth, making all the projects that she has dreamed up, and ensuring that her work does more than sit on library shelves: she takes pains to secure 'responsible distribution' of her work so that her films become more than hopeful messages in bottles thrown into the sea of the mass media. As much as is feasible, she follows her work into the world, arranging premieres of her films in Native villages like Restigouche and Burnt Church, and using these occasions as opportunities to talk with Native people whom she might not otherwise meet. Viewing her work as a prelude to conversation, Obomsawin allows her films to serve as an extended invitation to indigenous commentary, giving the Native subject an opportunity to respond to the Native image—and the Native imagemaker—in a way that is all too rare. As she sets up a conversation around her work, she helps create solidarity and insight within specific communities as well as building a 'counternational' audience for her cinema of sovereignty.

The fruits of her approach are apparent in the comments of a Mi'kmaq woman named Miigam'agan, a mother of three who lives in Burnt Church. Remembering how she felt when Obomsawin arrived with her NFB crew to shoot Is the Crown at War with Us? as well as the happy moment when her community was able to see the finished film, Miigam'agan says:
During the fishing crisis, we had a number of people that came and did stories, interviews, and documentaries.When she did call I wasn't open—I wasn't rude or anything, but I was already feeling a little bit overwhelmed with the media here... So she came, and then it was almost like we were interviewing her. She was bringing her final work for us to look at. It was a history here in the community to see that many people in one room. People were laughing and crying. Even for me, I’ve lived here for so long, but to be able to hear voices from other community members that I know normally would not talk as openly and comfortably in public forums—it was such an awareness. Obomsawin has similar memories of the premiere, which she held in a school gymnasium in Burnt Church. 'It was just incredible,' she recalls. 'When you go to the communities it’s always so special.' She remembers how the audience, including many people who had taken part in the turmoil, watched the film with passion—crying, laughing, talking loudly.
As this example suggests, a cinema of sovereignty should be based on the principle of reciprocity. I have already noted how the relationship between imagemaker and Native subject has often veered into rank exploitation. Only in recent decades have filmmakers and photographers striven for a more egalitarian relationship with the people in front of their lenses, and some have even hoped to become mere instruments of their subjects' will, thereby 'facilitating their objectives in representing themselves,' as Eric Michaels puts it. Yet, often, a patronizing element still undergirds this well-intentioned exchange because the Western imagemaker must instruct the Native subject in the pitfalls of the medium: Don't sit like that unless you want to look silly... Are you sure you want to pose like that? . . . What is lacking, as Michaels points out, is instruction in the other direction—the establishment of a reciprocal relationship in which the photographer or filmmaker learns from the subject.

Native filmmakers like Obomsawin are unusual in this regard because in many cases they already possess traditional knowledge as well as Western representational know-how yet they honor the potential for a reciprocal arrangement. In Obomsawin's case this takes the form of an unwavering attitude of respect and openness toward Native people. Obomsawin may have the ultimate authority over the filmmaking process, but she does everything possible to avoid setting herself up as the expert. Unlike the example of Keokuk cited above, her cinema of sovereignty is predicated on an enduring ethical relationship between media producer and subject. As Michaels once pointed out, 'literally millions' of pictures have been taken of indigenous people, yet most have done little good for anyone except the photographer—I think that this is because they were born out of what I might call representational wedlock (i.e., there was no lasting bond between the parties). For this reason, Obomsawin strives to maintain lifelong relationships with the people in her films, once again working in something akin to the spirit of radical indigenism. There is one last point that I have learned from Obomsawin's work: a cinema of sovereignty is an art, not a screed—that is to say, its success in presenting an indigenous perspective depends on the degree to which it is compelling cinema. No doubt, what is compelling has a great deal of cultural specificity, but good art has a way of transcending such boundaries to resonate with diverse audiences. What I am stressing should be obvious, although it often gets buried at the chaotic intersection of art and politics: attention to cinematic artistry, however defined, is essential to getting one’s message into the world. Only well-told stories will hold the attention of disparate audiences that might include Mi'kmaq children in Restigouche, Anglo- Canadian families in Alberta, Quebecois intellectuals in Montreal, and media professionals at Sundance (where Is the Crown at War with Us? had its U.S. premiere in 2003). This final point about the role of artistry is crucial—without artistry, none of the others will make a difference.

[Written by Randolph Lewis, the foregoing was originally published as a chapter in Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), which is available for reading on Scribd.]

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