Hilda Nicholas (left) said she was honoured to translate legendary documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s seminal documentary, though the material was emotional to get through at times. (Courtesy NFB)
One of the most viewed and heralded documentaries in National Film Board history was, 25 years after its premiere, screened last Thursday for the first time in the language of the film’s subjects.
Around 50 people showed up at the Rotiwennakehte School in Kanesatake to watch Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance entirely in Kanien’kéha, with the filmmaker and translator present.
“I loved it so much, it was such a wonderful experience,” Obomsawin told The Eastern Door. “She (translator Hilda Nicholas) was telling me that people were looking at themselves (after 1990), and feeling so good about themselves and thinking young people are not speaking their language anymore.”
Nicholas, an elder from Kanesatake, translated and narrated the film.
“It really became a turning point because the land issue has really been an issue for all nations,” Alanis Obomsawin on the impact across the country of the Mohawk stand in 1990.
“I was so proud, first of all, to be asked by Alanis to do this for my community,” she said. “I’m proud because Alanis asked me, and I’m proud because it’s for our community. It’s our history and it’s our language, and it’s preserving our language in a very positive way. I was just very honoured.”
Kenneth Deer spoke on a panel after the premiere, alongside Wanda Gabriel, Judy Caldwell and author Isabelle St. Armand. He was thoroughly impressed with the Kanien’kéha version of the film.
“I thought the video was amazing,” said Deer. “The sound quality, the translation, it looks like it was made in Mohawk, the way it’s done. I was very, very impressed with the quality of the translation.”
Hearing her film in Kanesatake and Kahnawake’s first language was a true thrill for the heralded 85-year-old director of 50 films.
“When we looked at the film, the voices were just beautiful,” said Obomsawin. “It’s a very nice feeling. Even though, in my case I don’t know the language, I found it just wonderful.”
The film is the seminal work documenting the Oka Crisis of 1990, with Obomsawin getting incredible access to those involved in the standoffs in Kahnawake and Kanesatake against the Quebec and Canadian governments.
The film has been shown across the globe, winning dozens of international awards. It was the first documentary ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 1993.
Obomsawin said the stand in 1990 and the film have impacted Onkwehón:we nations across the country continuously since it was released.
“What I hear people say to me is, ‘Alanis, we could never say thank you enough to the Mohawks for having done that resistance,’” she said. “Different nations say the government has more respect for us now when we’re dealing with things. For years I have heard this… It really became a turning point because the land issue has really been an issue for all nations.”
Obomsawin followed with three other films on the crisis: My Name is Kahentiiosta in 1995, Spudwrench-Kahnawake man in 98, and Rocks at Whiskey Trench in 2000.
Deer has seen the documentary many times since, and never tires of Obomsawin’s masterpiece.
“Every time you watch it though, you see something new, something a bit different,” he said.
While hard at work making the film, Obomsawin never thought it would be so important, and live on to be screened regularly decades after its release.
“You go through so much, making a film like that, I never thought of its future,” said Obomsawin. “I just thought at the time that I was very happy I was documenting it because for me it was history and it was very important.”
Its importance, however, has been made abundantly clear, as she discovers university students who view the film today are often oblivious that the events took place.
“They have no clue that this happened here, so it’s even more important that they know what the history is,” said Obomsawin.
Translating the film meant reliving the events that struck some raw emotions for Nicholas, which was not always an easy task.
“It was very mixed emotions,” she said. “I cried because it was sad what was happening. There were times when some people were funny. There were times when I was angry about what is happening to our people. It was a very powerful and emotional experience.”
With time, the film continues to inspire, but, for the filmmaker and those involved with the crisis, it is tough knowing many at the barricades for weeks in such an intimate and emotional setting are no longer here to speak about it.
“It’s worse now because so many people that are in the film have passed away,” said Obomsawin. “I was with them a lot behind the barricades, and I just get a lump in my throat when I hear them talk. I say, ‘oh my god,’ there are many of them.”
Deer feels the same.
“One of the most emotional parts of it is how many people in that video are no longer with us, have passed on,” said Deer. “That, to me, really pulled on the heart strings. To see these people that were out there and having passed on.”
Having another classic film translated in Kanien’kéha is a huge boost for language revitalization, as Kanien’kehá:ka and other nations continue to rebuild what others attempted to take down.
The importance of Obomsawin’s film now being available in Kanien’kéha is not lost on Deer.
“The suppression of the language did so much damage it’s hard to compare,” said Deer. “We don’t have a library of literature in the language, so that makes it very hard because there was no chance to create that kind of literature in the last hundred years.”
The National Film Board is planning a screening of the film in Kahnawake in the coming months. More details will be revealed when they’re available.
View the entire film: