This is the documentary veteran aboriginal director Alanis Obomsawin intended to make when she visited Northern Ontario’s Attawapiskat First Nation in 2011, only to have the process interrupted by the housing crisis that became front-page news while she was there.
Shifting gears, Obomsawin – her earlier credits include the classics Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and Incident at Restigouche – opted to make a film about that crisis, The People of the Kattawapiskak River, a world premiere at last year’s imagineNATIVE festival.
This one (the title, roughly translated from the Cree, means “I love you very much”) is nothing if not ambitious – and flags in momentum and interest as a result. Foremost on its agenda is the campaign, launched in 2008, to get a “safe, comfy school” built in Attawapiskat, bring the plight of inadequate aboriginal education before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and have Parliament approve a motion declaring that all aboriginal children “have an equal right to a high-quality, culturally relevant education.”
Earnest, often moving, chock full of plucky characters with good intentions, the film is haunted by the absent presence of Shannen Koostachin, the charismatic Cree student who got the campaign going but died tragically, at 16, in a car crash in 2010. Others are shown picking up the cause, creating a national movement under the banner Shannen’s Dream, and at film’s end, construction crews are laying rebar for a new school, now scheduled to open next fall.
As an act of witness, Hi-Ho Mistahey! is admirable; as cinema, not so much.