Alanis Obomsawin Receives DOC Institute Honours

Michelle Latimer and Alanis Obomsawin received the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award and Rogers-DOC Luminary Award, respectively,
Photo courtesy of DOC

By Patrick Mullen

Update (Dec. 21): This article was published prior to news that broke on Dec. 17, which put Michelle Latimer’s Indigenous identity under scrutiny. We are monitoring this story as it develops.

Update (Dec. 23): The DOC Institute has asked Michelle Latimer to return the Vanguard Award. She agreed.

The DOC Institute celebrated a formidable pair of filmmakers at the 7th annual DOC Institute Honours last night in a virtual event hosted by Garvia Bailey. The organization bestowed the Rogers DOC Luminary Award to Canada’s most prolific documentary filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin, in recognition of her illustrious and influential career. It’s an appropriate choice since Obomsawin’s touch is evident in the passionate work of Michelle Latimer, who received the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award, which honours an early to mid-career filmmaker leading the new generation of talent. The Abenaki Obomsawin and Métis-Algonquin Latimer are peas in a pod as they both use the power of cinema to correct, further, and elevate stories of Indigenous rights and sovereignty in Canada.

Obomsawin delivered her 52nd documentary last year with the release of Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger. The doc closed a significant body of work about the rights of Indigenous children, which included the films We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016) and Our People Will Be Healed (2018). Her films produced during a long career with the National Film Board of Canada have screened at virtually every Canadian festival and received accolades nationwide while changing many minds in the process. Her most celebrated work is arguably Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which documented the tumultuous events of the Oka Crisis and brought new levels of public consciousness to concerns for Indigenous land rights. Obomsawin became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2019 and was invited to the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2017. The Rogers-DOC Luminary Award was presented to Obomsawin by Robin Mirsky from the Rogers Group of Funds.

“Thank you for this very special honour, and thank you to the DOC Institute for their incredible efforts to ensure that the documentary world keeps on growing, and that the voices of all nations are heard,” said Obomsawin in a statement from the DOC Institute. “In encouraging and supporting documentary filmmakers, they also ensure that the history of our country is front and centre. Once again, I want us to remember that there is freedom in our beautiful country, Canada.”

Latimer’s honour with the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award caps off a high-profile season for the director. She debuted the documentary Inconvenient Indian to wide acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, captivating audiences and critics alike with a provocative essay on Indigenous rights and representation inspired by the words of Thomas King. Inconvenient Indian won both the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at TIFF and the People’s Choice Award for Documentary, and won other honours during its run including the Directors’ Guild of Canada Award and a spot on Canada’s Top Ten earlier this year.

In addition to Inconvenient Indian, Latimer recently debuted the dramatic mini-series Trickster, adapted from Eden Robinson’s novels, on CBC. Her work spans a range of genres, formats, and mediums, including the VICE doc series Rise about the protests at Standing Rock and the feature doc Alias about Toronto’s hip-hop scene. As part of her prize for the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award, Latimer receives $40,000 of in-kind services from Canadian production supplier SIM-International and a $1,000 cash prize from the Bank of Montreal.

“Receiving the Vanguard award is an especially tremendous honour because it comes from my peers — the artists, storytellers and collaborators who inspire me daily and who give me courage to continue on this creative path,” said Latimer in a statement. “Together we’re creating community and hopefully changing the world with our stories. There is nothing to this life if we can’t lift one another up and this award is a beautiful reminder to pay this generosity forward to the next generation of doc-makers with stories to tell.” (Read more about Latimer in the latest POV cover story.)

Previous winners for the BMO-DOC Luminary Award include Millefiore Clarkes, Amar Wala, Victoria Lean, Chelsea McMullan, Brett Story, and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, while past recipients of the Rogers-DOC Vanguard Award include Zoe Dirse, Elizabeth Klinck, Daniel Cross, Hot Docs President Chris MacDonald, and POV editor Marc Glassman.