Alanis Obomsawin exudes a sense of relief as she retreats to her National Film Board office to discuss her latest feature-length documentary, Rocks at Whiskey Trench.
The film, the fourth and final in her series about the 1990 Oka Crisis, focuses on one specific incident in that nasty period in the history of government and police relations with aboriginal people. Obomsawin is clearly a bit emotionally drained after completing the film, understandably so after focusing on the details of another chapter in the crisis.
The film is anchored by media footage burned into the memory of anyone who watched the national news the night of the incident. On Aug. 28, 1990, 75 cars attempted to cross Montreal's Mercier Bridge, in an effort to transport Mohawk women, children and elders from Kahnawake, a region cut off by a native blockade. But anger in the adjacent communities had been building for weeks because of the blockade, and an angry mob gathered at one end of the bridge, armed with rocks, gravel, bricks and anything else that could be picked up and thrown. As the convoy passed through the mob, numerous car windows were smashed. Scores of people were injured, many seriously, and one elder, hit in the chest with a rock, died of a heart attack the next day.
With the film, Obomsawin typically gets behind the media clip and humanizes the incident, opening her film with tearful first-person testimonials from those who weathered the hail of rocks on that hot August day. "I felt very bad, because a number of the elders had died since the incident," the soft-spoken Obomsawin says. "One person told me that their father had died and had never spoken of it. When such a story happens to someone and they are never able to pass it on, I feel very badly about that. I did this for the people who went through it, but also for other generations to see what happened."
Obomsawin, who was named to the Order of Canada in 1983 for her contributions to cinema, has never held much stock in notions of balance, an attitude indicative of her latest film as well. In 1991, when her first Oka film (and perhaps her most celebrated to date), Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, aired in a truncated version on the CBC, the network decided to hold a panel discussion to be broadcast after the screening. Obomsawin, sensing that the invitation was offered only in an effort to assuage critics of her perspective, politely declined, indicating that the film spoke for itself. "I don't know about the CBC," she says today. "I do have a point of view, as they point out. But they have a point of view also, obviously -- they just don't call it that."
Thus much of Rocks at Whiskey Trench relies on interviews with the natives directly affected in the incident. But Obomsawin did work at getting "the other side," they just weren't always willing to talk. "Oh, I tried. There were 13 people who were arrested for the rock-throwing. I read all the court transcripts. My researcher spoke with as many of them as we could find, and most of them didn't want to talk. Some even laughed at us. They didn't seem to have much remorse."
Obomsawin did get one man, who was charged with a minor offence. He now says he didn't throw any rocks, but merely yelled and cheered his approval at the actions of others. Clearly reluctant to be filmed, he defends the mob, stating that it was white people who built the Mercier Bridge anyway.
At this point, Obomsawin artfully footnotes the film with a fitting bit of history. In fact, the Mercier Bridge was built with a great deal of native manpower; Obomsawin carefully recounts the history of the bridge's construction, including interviews with elders who discuss the poor working conditions and miserable pay.
The correction of misperception is pure Obomsawin, something any student of the filmmaker will recognize right away. "I always want to include history in my films, as much as possible. Because people know nothing about native history. Because people keep judging and accusing people of things that aren't true.
"A statement I hear all the time is that native people are so lazy, they're always drunk and on welfare. Many have worked hard in their lives for survival, to put food on their tables for their children."
(For the record, Obomsawin also wanted to hear more of the perspective of Sûreté du Quebec officers, but was turned away by one of the provincial police force's public-relations personnel, who she said was "extremely rude.")
After completing her fourth and final Oka Crisis-related film, does Obomsawin think things have improved over the past decade for Canada's native people?
"Oh yes, I would say there's a difference for all aboriginal people. Prior to Kanehsatake, all the reserves suffered from these problems. Some municipality would decide they needed some land and that would be it. We just never heard about it. So it opened everbody's eyes and ears."