Once upon a very long time ago, Abenaki territory stretched from southern Québec into what is now Massachusetts, and from Lake Champlain to the Atlantic Ocean. But this geographic sweep is not such ancient history to Alanis Obomsawin, whose Waban-aki: People From Where the Sun Rises taps into the indigenous heritage she cherishes. The 104-minute documentary premieres at the Montréal World Film Festival Thursday evening, August 31, a date that coincides with her 74th birthday.
Obomsawin's project pays homage to the 38,000 registered Abenakis in Canada and another 23,000 in the United States. A few thousand of these Native Americans live in Vermont, where the tribal name is translated as People of the Dawn.
Odanak, the Québec reservation where Obomsawin spent much of her childhood, plays a prominent role in the film's nonfiction narrative. Numerous scenes also were shot last fall in Swanton, where the Green Mountain State's St. Francis/Sokoki Band is headquartered.
"I interviewed Chief April Merrill and tribal archaeologist Fred Wiseman, who is seen repairing an old canoe from Odanak," says Obomsawin, now a Montréal resident. "I also observe a group of Abenaki University of Vermont students when they're brought into the Circle of the Talking Stick."
In this ritual, a traditional war club is transformed into a ceremonial stick. "Only when you're holding it can you talk," explains Obomsawin, who has made more than 30 aboriginal-themed docs in almost four decades of working at the National Film Board of Canada.
During a phone interview, Obomsawin - a member of Vermont Public Television's Canadian advisory board - laughs frequently. And as a seasoned storyteller, she sure knows how to spin a great yarn. Like the tale of her 1960 professional singing debut at New York City's Town Hall. Along with seven other Canadian performers, she was in a showcase organized by the Folkways record label. "I cried all day and nearly died of stage fright," recalls Obomsawin, who refused to believe a bouquet of roses delivered to the theater was actually meant for her. "I didn't really speak English then, but somebody later told me that I'd gotten the best review of all. I asked, 'What's a review?'"
That charming naiveté was probably the result of a fairly sheltered youth. Six months after Obomsawin's birth in Lebanon, New Hampshire, her family relocated to the reservation. After nine years there, they lived for the remainder of her adolescence as the only non-Caucasians in the small Québec city of Trois Rivières.
But a cousin of Obomsawin's mother had taught the girl traditional songs and legends. They sustained her throughout a musical career that culminated in a 1988 album, Bush Lady. By then, she was already fully immersed in cinematic pursuits.
In People From Where the Sun Rises, Obomsawin returns to Odanak to help preserve the threads of Abenaki culture. On camera, a nonagenarian elder named Yvonne M'Sadoques remembers a time of religious repression: "The priest would march into our home and order us to stop dancing. We were going to the devil, he said. But, you know, I don't really believe in the devil. Do you?"
If the devil does exist, he might be behind various features with diabolically intriguing plots at the Montréal festival, which continues through September 4.
Take Cadavre Exquise. This saga about a fading glam-rock star's pact with Mephistopheles himself was hatched by a collaborative of 11 Canadian directors.
The 4th Dimension, an American indie, depicts an unstable young man with supernatural visions who finds a previously unknown journal written by Albert Einstein.
More Than Anything in the World focuses on a Mexican child's suspicion that her depressed mother is under the influence of a neighborhood vampire.
In Havana File, an Iranian scientist discovers that the government is thwarting his biotechnology experiments and making him the target of a smear campaign.
Shadow of Silence echoes the idea of justified paranoia, but in a maybe-not-so-futuristic Saudi Arabia. At a remote research center, an authoritarian regime brainwashes intellectuals suspected of harboring liberal ideas.
Vermonters can pick up free Montréal World Film Festival schedules locally. In the Burlington area: Seven Days, 255 South Champlain Street; Burlington College, 95 North Avenue; Community College, 119 Pearl Street; and Waterfront Video, 370 Shelburne Road. Middlebury: Waterfront Video, 2 Maple Street. Montpelier: Savoy Theater, 26 Main Street.
For more info about the Montréal World Film Festival, visit http://www.ffm-montreal.org  or call 514-848-3883.