Alanis_Obomsawin_2Alanis Obomsawin, one of Canada’s most prolific documentary filmmakers, was the talk of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with her documentary on Attawapiskat, Hi-Ho Mistahey!

Chronicling how the Ontario James Bay community’s fight for a new elementary school evolved into a national movement of First Nations children for the betterment of on-reserve education, Hi-Ho Mistahey! took Toronto audiences by storm.

“The audiences were just extraordinary. It was overwhelming. The film was shown three times and the first time there wasn’t enough room in the cinema,” said Obomsawin, who has produced over 40 films on Aboriginal issues over a four-decade career.

The film tells the story of Attawapiskat youth activist Shannen Koostachin’s life, struggle and untimely death. It goes on to chronicle the birth of a foundation inspired by her dream of “safe and comfy” schools for all First Nations children, while detailing the injustice and the inequality at the heart of this real-life drama.

Obomsawin breathes new life into this story by letting it be told by those most affected: Koostachin’s family, the children of Attawapiskat, the children who they inspired across Canada and Charlie Angus, the MP who led them on the crusade to end educational apartheid in this country. The result is a breathtaking two-hour film that is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting.

“There are many issues to resolve but you have to start somewhere. There are many communities that need the same things, like schools and better services, be it in health or education. That’s really the main thing. You can’t resolve everything overnight but if you document it, a documentary is the best gun you can have,” said Obomsawin.

While shooting her film, Obomsawin was forced to put it aside as Attawapiskat’s 2011 housing crisis unfolded and helped spark a national movement now famous as Idle No More. The result of this detour was The People of the Kattawapiskak River, a 50-minute documentary released last year.

Obomsawin said it was Attawapiskat’s children who inspired the two films, since both chronicle the brutal impact on kids growing up in such dire conditions. They are the magnetic stars of both documentaries.

“It was total magic to just watch them and all of the other children from across Canada who supported them. They were very concerned about what was happening in Attawapiskat,” said Obomsawin.

The People of the Kattawapiskak River offers insight into a community that the mainstream media rarely covered in any detail, and reveals the reality behind some of the more sensational headlines that subsequently dominated coverage during the height of the Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.

An outrageous example of media excess was provided by Ezra Levant’s angry Sun News tirades. One of his rants denounced Attawapiskat for acquiring a Zamboni for its skating rink during the housing crisis, while never mentioning that the purchase was made through fundraising or that the arena is the community’s only source of recreation. Fortunately, Charlie Angus provides balance by pointing out that the arena is actually the difference between life and death for some youth.

While The People of the Kattawapiskak River was sold to television shortly after it was made, Obomsawin said there was so much interest in the community’s side of the story that after airing three times, the NFB made it freely available online for a week, when it was viewed to completion over 50,000 times.

Despite being thrilled with the reception of Hi-Ho Mistahey! at TIFF, Obomsawin said the most important viewers were Koostachin’s parents, who were the first people to screen the film.

“They felt very honoured that this film was made for their daughter and the community,” said Obomsawin. “It was very touching.”