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Film still of two people, a teen and a small child, wade in a river, holding a large piece of cloth underwater.

Still from The Cloth of the Mother Goddess

Film directed by Arun Wolf

  • Connecting to the Past and Present through Film: Insights from Mother Tongue Directors

    “Every film is a window to the past. That is why I treasure old films and the preservation of stock footage immensely. Film is a time capsule.”

    Filmmakers like Caio Cortonesi, director of the Brazilian music video “Hêwaka Waktû,” are cognizant of the power of film. They often reflect on how their work and the medium in general impact their communities and their audiences. We reached out to directors of several 2022 Mother Tongue Film Festival selections over email to ask their thoughts about how film connects us to the past. (See part one on the directors’ insights on legacy and film.)

    Other directors expressed similar sentiments to Cortonesi: film is valuable for its ability to preserve and feature history. Adriana Otero, director of the short documentary Chi’ Kaan / Snake’s Mouth, wrote, “The use of ancient visual records with current testimonies and memory make us connect our knowledge with its origins to understand the importance of audiovisual media as documentation tools.”

    Similarly, as an archivist for her community of Yamaye Guani, Rahe-wanitanama, director of Mayfly, notes the value of film as an archival tool. “We have been using film as our preferred medium to document our movement and to be a form of active research as well as communication.” She also signals that film poses an opportunity for her community to reclaim historical narratives. “In terms of being an artist and practicing within film, it ties into an academic school of thought which came together with my personal interest in heritage, which was of truth-seeking, truth-telling, and truth-keeping.”

    Other directors also underscored the opportunity that film provides, signaling how important it is to them and their communities to educate the public on diverse perspectives and correct inaccurate narratives of the past. Arun Wolf, director of The Cloth of the Mother Goddess and The Making of Creation, noted that film is a tool to showcase different ideologies and knowledge systems. “Films don’t just add to an archive of knowledge, but can potentially also help to create spaces for different ways of doing and thinking to continue to thrive.”

    For directors Keanu Jones (Indian Save The) and Alexis Sallee (Celebrating Our Beauty), it is also about shedding light.

    “The past and/or history that was taught in school is not completely accurate and was only told from one perspective,” Jones wrote. “Now that making films has been so accessible, we can create our own versions of history and shed light on the real events. We have the power to tell our own stories so someone else does not have to.”

    “It’s a way to educate people who might have been misinformed,” Sallee echoed. “Some do so by sharing facts and reporting, but I do it through emotion. I think that once you humanize someone, it’s easier to accept truths.”

    As a tool, film has the ability to reach a broad audience. For directors, it can be a meaningful platform to reclaim the often-incomplete narrative placed upon their community. Through film, communities are able to re-engage with ancestral knowledge and engage with other groups in the sharing of knowledge.

    When we asked about the role of film in sharing knowledge from different cultural perspectives, many directors expressed a great deal of passion and excitement about its ability to connect people around the globe. Kyle Bell, director of Good Voice Woman, highlighted film’s ability to create empathy. Sallee added, “Indigenous filmmakers are now taking our own narratives back. We are able to share our stories and show people who our communities really are from our lens. When we are able to share our own stories, we can knock down stereotypes and misconceptions of our people.”

    Film still of a woman, seated outdoors, dipping a tiny ink stick in a pot of blue ink as she hand-paints an intricate border design on a white cloth.
    Still from Ritmos Ancestrales / Ancestral Rhythms
    Film directed by Maria Lino

    Maria Lino (Ritmos Ancestrales / Ancestral Rhythms) similarly replied, “Film can credit the cultural contributions of diverse, underrepresented communities.”

    For these directors, film is not just an artform but a powerful form of communication that enables the sharing of perspectives and wisdom.

    “Knowledge, history, or culture is not the property of a single individual or a single community,” says Zubair Torwali, Documentary on the Revitalization of the Torwali Language. “Knowledge, histories, and cultures are shared. This way, sharing enhances harmony, peace, empathy, and curiosity.”

    Adding to Torwali’s thoughts, Mariona Lloreta, director of A Lua Nunca Morre, emphasized the power film has to create positive change. “I cannot think of a more transformative, powerful medium to share our truth with one another, and build towards a more equitable, more connected, more open world.”

    Rahe-wanitanama of Mayfly offered a bit of insight on the advantages of film to speak to a large number of people: “My process is always research-led, and part of that process is observing, experiencing, paying attention to, and listening, drawing in information from many sources and people. Filmmaking itself has that collective element in other ways, too. This makes it a powerful form of expression and communication, which can be especially useful in reaching out from one culture to speak to many people.” 

    Regardless of language or subject matter, there are often elements of film that anyone can connect to. As Eris Qian, director of Mother Tongue, beautifully stated, “The human experience we capture on film, while with cultural specificities, is ultimately universal. Therefore, we filmmakers must serve as bridges and demystify the cultural barriers.”

    Our final question for the directors concerned the significance of working in their mother tongue. So many expressed how vital it was to work in their language for the success and legitimacy of the film.

    “There are many words and concepts in Indigenous languages that don’t always translate to English, so thoughts and ideas get lost,” Sallee noted. Many concepts and perspectives are limited by the constraints of each language. So much of the power that film holds in presenting diverse perspectives and in sharing knowledge would be hindered without the inclusion of the mother language.

    But language is not just about delivering a verbal message. There is much more that can be encompassed and communicated through a mother tongue that may have been hindered in English.

    “There are so many unspoken details and sensibilities that are embedded into language and that color a culture and make it distinct,” Lloreta expressed.

    Film still of a woman, kneeling on a rooftop at night, lighting candles in a homemade altar.
    Still from Mother Tongue
    Film directed by Eris Qian

    “Language is not only a means of communication,” Qian added. “It carries the collective memories, symbols, history, and imagination that we share in our culture across generations.” For her, this is the power of language. Using Mandarin, her mother tongue, in her film, Qian was able to draw upon and mark the shared experiences of her community—both past and present.

    Jones touched on the bond that is immediately created when viewing a film in your own mother tongue: “There’s something special about watching a film in your own language because you start to have a deeper personal connection.”

    While film can be a vehicle to reclaim narrative, it must first be a worthy and authentic portrayal of its community. Lloreta, Qian, and Sallee all noted the level of authenticity that is achieved through the use of the mother tongue. In a simple yet direct way, Noemi Librado Sanchez, one of the directors of First Time Home, doubled down on this sentiment, demonstrating the centrality of Native language in the creation of such cultural films. “If our language, Triqui, had not been in the film, it would not have been a film about us.”

    We want to thank all of the filmmakers who graciously took time to share their experiences and motivations. Their insights speak to the power that film holds to connect to the past and reclaim marginalized histories. As a medium, film is also capable of being more accessible in sharing knowledge to outside communities and broader audiences. And by presenting films in their mother tongues, directors are better representing and portraying their community in a more impactful and authentic way.

    Several films are still available on the Mother Tongue Film Festival website. We invite you to watch and witness the power of film to connect us with the knowledge of the past, present, and future. 

    José González is an intern for the Mother Tongue Film Festival. He is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying anthropology and museum training, and he researches intersections between museum education and decolonization initiatives.

    Maddie Van Oostenburg is a research assistant for the Mother Tongue Film Festival at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a graduate of Purdue University where she studied anthropology and sociology and researched global Indigenous media.

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