Telling Our Story Review: Reclaiming History in Their Own Words

TIFF 2023

5 mins read

Telling Our Story
(Canada, 104 mins.)
Dir. Kim O’Bomsawin
Programme: Primetime (World Premiere)


The sprawling 4-part documentary series Telling Our Story makes it clear from the jump that most of what Canadians know about indigenous people is wrong.  The little bits of history taught in schools and debated on the floors of Parliament Hill come from the distinct perspective of colonizers. Director Kim O’Bomsawin’s (Call Me Human) documentary, the first two parts of which premiered at TIFF, aims to rewrite these flawed narratives by allowing 11 different First Nations in Quebec to tell their stories.

Weaving over 500 years of history into the fabric of Indigenous life in Quebec, which began well before the Europeans first arrived, Telling Our Story aims to educate the uninformed. The documentary provides a stable foundation on which viewers may build their house of knowledge. O’Bomsawin ensures that each new brick is full of insights to unpack.

The first part of the documentary highlights the deep connection that Indigenous communities have with the territory on which they reside. The spiritual bond and respect for both the land and the creatures on it, including ensuring that no part of a hunted animal is wasted, is explored, as are the many consequences of colonization’s impact on various regions. Juxtaposing the accounts of interviewees with gorgeous shots of the forest and rivers that make up Indigenous lands that now host Canada, O’Bomsawin effectively captures how the quest for profit by Canadian governments and developers has led to increased pollution and the death of wildlife.

Telling Our Story directly ties the theft and subsequent destruction of the regions that First Nations populated back to the early settlers. The documentary reminds viewers that Indigenous communities saved the life of famed explorer Jacques Cartier, who, in turn, mistook their generosity as an excuse to pillage the land and its resources. Sadly, this would be one of many occasions when outsiders would attempt to claim that which was never theirs in the first place.

Covering everything from how the Indian Act was designed to eradicate Indigenous communities to the generational impact of residential schools on families, O’Bomsawin ensures that the humanity and resilience of First Nations people remain at the forefront. The emotion is palpable when individuals recount the mass killing of dogs use for mushing, under the government’s dubious “stray dog” removal policy, and influx of alcohol feed into communities. One can feel the sense of urgency as the director, exploring the theme of identity, reflects on how the traumatic events of the past have made the preservation of cultural languages even more important than ever.

Highlighting school programs that are teaching the young people the vocabulary of their ancestors, O’Bomsawin shows that there is hope that the next generation will keep valuable traditions alive.  This fact hits home when the camera observes award-winning musician Jeremy Dutcher performing a beautiful rendition of his song “Mehcinut” in the Wolastoq language.

In capturing both the hardships and various facets of the cultural beauty with equal measure, O’Bomsawin paints a lush mosaic of the Indigenous experience in Quebec. By visiting over 30 communities and speaking with members of the Abenaki, Anishinaabe, Atikamekw, Cree of Eeyou Istchee, Innu, Inuit, Mi’kmaq, Kanien’kehá:ka, Naskapi, Huron-Wendat, and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) nations, she shows that the Indigenous experience is not a monolith. Despite having specific words and customs unique to each region, they all share a common respect for the land and the people who inhabited it.

Although its structure tends to fall on the conventional side, there is much to learn within this documentary. Telling Our Story gives voice to those whose histories have been silenced for far too long.  The result is a fascinating examination of community, strength, and perseverance in the face of great adversity.

Telling Our Story premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and debuts on CBC this fall.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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