Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ondinnok and the Theatre of Healing

Lunch with Alanis Obamsawin. She’s a slight woman, with very piercing eyes, and a reputation formidable enough to have won her a retrospective at MOMA in New York last year. She’s been making films for 40 years, and has 35 to her credit. Most of these are documentaries about First Nations people – although she’s almost coyly pleased when I tell her how much I like Sigwan, which on the surface is a children’s film, though its mythic quality carries profound resonance for adults. She’s intending it to be the first in a series. Great to see somebody who has been working so long at the top of her profession trying a completely new direction, and doing it with such freshness.

She tells me that Kanehsatake had its first screenings in London (courtesy of Channel 4, back when it had a reason for existing), and was met with standing ovations, before anybody dared to screen it in Canada. It was finally shown on CBC on the condition that it was followed by a discussion, to overcome accusations of bias. Shades of Lord Hutton. Alanis refused to participate in the discussion – saying the film itself made her point. She’s also adamant that there is no place for “objectivity” and “balance” in documentary film-making: it’s about making a point with passion. Other people can disagree afterwards. What is amazing is that she works out of the National Film Board, which is a government body and yet acts as Producer for all her films, most of which are deeply critical of the government. I tell her that I find that a ringing endorsement of Canadian democracy. She agrees – but tells me such freedoms are very much under threat. We compare notes on censorship and the war on terror.

Alanis is thrilled that we want to show her work in Origins, and would like to come to London for the Festival. So – the programme grows. All we have to do is find the money to back it up….

The rest of the day is spent with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the directors of Ondinnok. This company, the only First Nations theatre group in Québec, is the crux of this trip to Montréal, and I’m not disappointed in them. Ondinnok’s work is mythological and shamanic in its inspiration. They deal with “issues” and the contemporary reality of Native life – but they do it through a return to the spiritual power of the culture. For Yves, he tells me in his halting but eloquent Francophone English, the theatre is “a big work of re-opening the soul of the people and all the wounds they have”.

The company has been going for more than 20 years, and they show me a DVD which commemorates the 20th anniversary. In the centre of this time-frame sits the moment in 1995 when Yves and Catherine were approached by a community in rural Québec, the Atikamekw of Manawan. This approach was the result of the community’s severe social and spiritual malaise: the high levels of alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse which sadly characterise so many contemporary First Nations groups, not only in Canada but across the world. Why the community felt that theatre could be the way out of this downward spiral I do not know – but Yves and Catherine felt they had to do something in response, and they ended up staying for three years. During this crucial period they evolved their Theatre of Healing techniques, which they now apply to their own creative processes. For Ondinnok (which means “a theatrical ritual healing that reveals the secret longings of the soul”), theatre and ritual are linked to divination. They ask who we are, and what is going on. They enable us to re-contact our forebears through cultural practice, and so to link with memory, roots and ancestors. And the results are real – the Atikamekw underwent real change.

During the evening, I get the chance to watch some of this in practice. Ondinnok is just beginning a new piece, which will pre-Columbian in its inspiration. The workshop begins with limbering up, which crosses very naturally into a smudging ritual, as the actors wash themselves in smoke. The lights are dim, and there is shamanic music playing. Yves projects a video of Mayan images, and the participants watch it, as the music throbs, and they dance, adopting some of the physical imagery from the projections. Then, in darkness, Yves places masks at the west end of the room, the sunset space where the ancestors lie. The actors take the masks and respond to them, summoning forces and presences older than themselves. In many ways, the mask work is like my own – what is different is its framing within the specific cultural ritual, which has brought the actors to a place of trance, in which they contact their own, and perhaps also their culture’s subconscious.

Yves and Catherine are hugely excited by the idea of a Theatre of Healing workshop at the centre of Origins. If I can, I would like them to run a five-day workshop in the middle of the Festival, which will be free to the other First Nations performers involved. The encounters could be truly extraordinary.

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