Jury members and journalists from around the world tuned into a virtual press conference Thursday afternoon to learn that documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is the winner of the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize. One person who wasn’t watching the reveal was Obomsawin herself. The 88-year-old member of the Abenaki Nation was in her home village of Odanak, Que., doing – what else? – making a film.
“It’s about a dream I had,” Obomsawin told The Globe and Mail. “The main character is a green horse.”
The Glenn Gould Prize is an international honour worth $100,000 awarded every two years. Obomsawin, who is a visual artist and a musician as well as a director of engaged documentaries about the First Nations experience, is the second female laurate among the award’s 13 recipients. The African-American opera singer Jessye Norman won in 2018.
Named a companion of the Order of Canada in 2019, Obomsawin has worked at the National Film Board of Canada since 1967. She has directed more than 50 documentaries, including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec. Her latest film is Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago.
“For me, my career is about the voice,” said Obomsawin, during a break in shooting. “The words are even more important than the images. I’m very careful in listening, to make sure I don’t take anything out of context.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Surojeet Chatterji of India praised Obomsawin as being a “virtuoso of life.” The pianist and music educator was one of 12 members of a star-studded jury chaired by American avant-garde artist and composer-musician Laurie Anderson.
“It was a privilege watching these minds interacting,” Anderson said of the deliberation process. “It was a wild ride. I didn’t know where it was going.”
More often than not, the prize, named in honour of the great Canadian pianist, has gone to musicians and composers. Among the melodious laureates are Philip Glass, Leonard Cohen, Yo-Yo Ma and Oscar Peterson. The exception was Canadian theatre icon Robert Lepage, who won in 2013.
Obomsawin was a folk singer in the 1960s before turning to documentary filmmaking. In the 1980s she recorded and released the album Bush Lady, a poetic and somewhat experimental presentation of First Nations music. The album quickly went out of print, but received belated recognition when it was reissued by Montreal’s Constellation Records two years ago.
When Obomsawin was told her musical accomplishments had been a consideration in her winning the Glenn Gould Prize, she expressed surprise.
“I had no idea," she said. “The sad part is Bush Lady could still be applied today. We still have a lot of Indigenous women who are being abused and who are disappearing.”
In her 2002 documentary Is the Crown At War With Us?, Obomsawin told the story of the 2000 dispute between the federal fisheries and the Mi’kmaq fishermen of Burnt Church, N.B. Speaking about the current lobster fishery dispute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia, Obomsawin was hopeful.
“It’s terrible what is happening, but people are listening,” Obomsawin said. “I talk to non-Indigenous people, and they’re as hurt as we are. The good things will win out in the end. Some day there won’t be so much sadness."
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