11/15/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

One year later, film chronicles housing crisis on Attawapiskat reserve

MONTREAL - There's exposed insulation, water marks on the ceiling and fire damage in Wayne Fireman's house. Built in 1992 and condemned 10 years later because of rotting floors, the one-storey building on the Attawapiskat reserve is still his family home.

Cold air seeps in. Fireman bounces gently on some spots in his kitchen floor to show a film crew where it's giving way and he's able to reach a hand through other sections.

Attawapkiskat, which burst into Canada's public consciousness with a tragic housing crisis in 2011, is now under the microscope of acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin in "The People of the Kattawapiskak River: The Story of the 2011 Housing Crisis."

The film puts a human face on a crisis in the Cree community in Northern Ontario that most people discovered in brief images of decrepit housing on the evening newscasts or in angry exchanges in the House of Commons. The community had declared a state of emergency on Oct. 28, 2011, and in the fallout Canada received a rebuke from the United Nations.

Obomsawin was already in the community filming another project when the story broke. She said it was a tragedy that needed to be documented.

"It was just awful," Obomsawin said. She said recriminations made against members of the community, that government money had been mismanaged, had staggered residents.

The filmmaker cited a media report saying a zamboni had been bought with money earmarked for education as an example. The community insists the money came from independent fundraising efforts led by a teacher.

Obomsawin says that Attiwapiskat — it's referred to in her film as Kattawapiskak because she says that's the community's correct name — is not a unique case as people would like to believe.

"There are 47 other communities who are in need of a proper school," she said.

"Attawapiskat is finally getting their school. They're getting it now so that's a big victory. The same has to happen to all those other communities that are really badly served in terms of health and education."

The soft-spoken Obomsawin, who is an Officer of the Order of Canada, has made 37 films with the National Film Board of Canada in the last 40 years, casting a keen eye on aboriginal issues and giving viewers an inside look at some of Canada's founding peoples.

"The People of the Kattawapiskak River" isn't sensational and doesn't need to be. The images, the words and emotions of the participants all speak for themselves as Obomsawin juggles her story between the unfolding crisis as seen in media reports and interviews with reserve residents.

The heat of exchanges in the House of Commons stand in stark contrast to life in the community, where the chill of the weather almost seems to whirl off the screen.

Obomsawin lamented that northern communities like Attawapiskat, which is on the frigid western shore of James Bay, are always at a disadvantage because they're so isolated.

"They're forgotten because they're far and nobody's going to check it out or see."

But Obomsawin sees change coming with a more activist aboriginal leadership.

She has also kept tabs on the reserve and says progress is being made. Crews have been sent in by the federal government. Houses are being renovated and the school is being built.

Obomsawin says work crew members she spoke to told her they were going to work all winter to get 90 residents out of trailers, which had been brought in, and back to their homes.

"I don't know how they're going to do that," she said, sounding a little awed.

"When we were shooting it was 43, 45 below zero. You can't stay out for very long. But that's fabulous that this is being done."

Obomsawin said it was impossible not to be affected by what she saw.

"Just walking around the village, you see the housing and the windows covered in plywood, you see the poverty is just terrible," she said.

"You wish you could be magical and turn this around right away."

She said everyone is working hard now to get the community on track: "No one is loafing," she said, describing the residents as "such gentle people. They're so beautiful."

The film, which documents the history of the reserve, follows the crisis up to Federal Court decision in August that ruled that the appointment of a third-party manager to fix the housing crisis was unjustified.

Obomsawin, whose film premiered at Toronto's imagineNATIVE film festival last month, was in Montreal for a screening at the Montreal international documentary festival which runs until Nov. 18.

But she always shows her films to the people she's documented first and she said the recent screening in Attawapiskat was an emotional experience.

"It was such a moving experience I think because the winter was so hard with all the bad publicity and the insults," she said. The film was a chance for the residents "to have a place to speak for yourself and be recognized.

"There were a lot of old people who watched the film and they were just hugging me and (saying), 'Thank you'."