TIFF Review: 'Hi-Ho Mistahey!'

Hi-Ho Mistahey!
(Canada, 100 min.)
Written and directed by Alanis Obomsawin
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Photo taken from the production, courtesy of the NFB.

The Northern Ontario Cree village of Attawapiskat became a hot topic in the winter of 2012 with the grassroots campaign “Idle No More”, which began as advocacy for water rights, but spiralled into a great campaign for the rights of First Nations’ Canadians. Predating the controversial campaign, however, was another significant cultural movement spearheaded by a member of the Attawapiskat village. That brave girl was the late Shannen Koostachin, who led a campaign for the rights of youth to a proper education. Shannen was tragically killed in a car accident in 2010 at age 16, but her courage to speak up inspired her community and lived on in the campaign “Shannen’s Dream”, which continued to fight for the students of Attawapiskat to receive the same standards of education provided in public schools across Canada.

The fight of Shannen, Attawapiskat, and all First Nations children is captured in fine detail in Alanis Obomsawin’s latest documentary, Hi-Ho Mistahey! The film marks another notable entry in Obomsawin’s filmography of activist documentaries highlighting the lives of First Nations Canadians. (The director is perhaps best known for her powerful, and arguably best, film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which chronicles the Oka Crisis in Quebec, 1990.) Obomsawin cuts directly to the heart of Shannen’s plight in Hi-Ho Mistahey! and takes her camera to Attawapiskat and lets the members of the community, young and old, explain the fundamental necessities to which the village lacks access.

The camera observes a village of poor material wealth—small, modest houses line the streets, although it’s hard to tell if they’re lived in or abandoned. The land on which the Attawapiskat schoolhouse sits is equally barren: contaminated by a diesel spill thirty years prior, the school was torn down in 2009 and replaced by portables. Facilities of all kinds are lacking, and resources are tapped out by lawsuits and a high-turnover rate of teachers who come to the North looking for escapism and a big paycheck, but can’t handle the poverty.

In spite of the dire situation of Attawapiskat, Obomsawin’s interviews with the children and some of the elders reveal an endurance of spirit. This community clearly has the heart to persist and rebuild. The children of Attawapiskat, symbols of a generation of children to parents lost by the residential schools but offered promises of apology and rectification, can aspire to opportunities that their parents could not realize. It’s a difficult situation to handle, but the sobriety of Hi-Ho Mistahey’s strong, perseverant message is remarkable.

Hi-Ho Mistahey is a fair and compelling look at the inequality that exists between First Nations communities and other communities across Canada. The film makes a genuine and emotionally compelling argument that the right to a proper education is a basic human right that every child deserves. Obomsawin never exploits Shannen’s death for an additional emotional pull, nor does the film’s focus on the pleas from children ever tread into sentimentality. Occasional inserts of archival footage paired with reminiscences by friends and family show Shannen to be a strong speaker with a courageous spirit, but Obomsawin smartly lets the members of the community who are continuing Shannen’s fight do most of the talking. The film speaks to and from the heart. The poignant persuasiveness of Hi-Ho Mistahey is one of its strengths, for the fight behind Shannen’s Dream seems like such a no-brainer when the argument is delivered so clearly and passionately.

Alanis Obomsawin delivers another strong and insightful portrait of First Nations Canadians and the social inequalities faced by their communities due to negligence from the Canadian government. Hi-Ho Mistahey is an appropriately activist reveal of an important story that might not have received the attention it deserved. As one Québécois teacher admits as she invites the students continuing “Shannen’s Dream” into her classroom via Skype, “We’re learning about a side of Canada that has been hidden from us.” The fight of the children of Attawapiskat, who take “Shannen’s Dream” to the United Nations and eventually see a bill pass through Parliament, are lobbying not only for the right to a fair education, but also for the continuation and the regeneration of their people’s identity following decades of devastation and neglect. The fight is about preserving the culture while enjoying the same resources offered to public schools in other parts of Canada.

Hi-Ho Mistahey celebrates the endurance of culture, though, in all that the children and people of Attawapiskat have seen. One particularly memorable sequence sets a lengthy geese hunting expedition to some rousing music. The scene depicts a tradition that continues a family history, something that’s worth preserving in Attawapiskat and could be lost if the younger generation migrates elsewhere in search of greater opportunity. The most striking image of Hi-Ho Mistahey, however, comes in its final moments as Obomsawin provides an animated sequence that depicts a spirit, Shannen perhaps, dancing atop the fields of Attawapiskat to the tune of a traditional chant. Hi-Ho Mistahey thus ends with a celebration of the spirit that endures in the village and of the history and legacy that will continue.

Hi Ho Mistahey is generally optimistic as the film chronicles the successful lobby of Parliament and the beginning of the construction of a new school in Attawapiskat. The portrayal of the Canadian government is mostly favourable, but Hi-Ho Mistahey holds the government accountable to its promises by noting that many schools in First Nations communities are in a state of disrepair and that the ground has only just been broken, so there is still much work to do. Hi-Ho Mistahey tells an essential Canadian story.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

UPDATE: Hi-Ho Mistahey! screens in Ottawa at the Human Rights Film Festival on Friday, Oct. 25 at 7:00 pm at the Almuni Auditorium in the Jock Turcot University Centre at the University of Ottawa (85 University)
***Director Alanis Obomsawin will attend the screening and participate in a discussion following the film.***

Please visit the Canadian Film Institute's website for more details.

Hi-Ho Mistahey opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox Nov. 1.
Alanis Obomsawin will be in attendamce Nov. 1 & 2.