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An older woman and her daughter stand one in front of another wearing traditional Maori dress, walking up a mountain.

Still from Hinekura directed by Becs Arahanga

  • How Storytelling Heals
    A Selection of Staff Picks at the Mother Tongue Film Festival

    “It is through understanding ourselves, our stories, and our language that we heal.”

    This bold statement by Kālewa Correa (Curator of Hawai‘i and the Pacific at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center) embodies the inspiration behind the Mother Tongue Film Festival’s theme this year, “The Healing Power of Storytelling.”

    As interns for the festival, we were able to engage with many of the forty-five films showcased this year and discover how healing manifests in films across genres, regions, and cultures. Storytelling offers the space to reflect upon and move through past traumas, the ability to relish in the beauty of moments long passed, and ignites the desire to unite with our communities and with ourselves—all forms of healing.

    To learn more about this year’s theme and how it relates to the festival’s films, we gathered opinions from members of the Mother Tongue team: Kālewa Correa, Joshua Bell (Curator of Globalization at the National Museum of Natural History), Mary Linn (Curator of Language and Cultural Vitality at Folklife), Anne Pederson (Festival Project Manager), and Cecelia Halle (Strategic Communication Assistant at Folklife), interweaving our own interpretations among their thoughts. Through these discussions, we grew to understand how this year’s theme is all-encompassing, visible within each film, tackling issues of change, womanhood, and identity.

    Healing, Change, and Growth

    By Maya Sanchez

    Storytelling takes us on a journey that offers the ability to witness growth. The change we see can involve a difficult process, but the resulting growth can ultimately lead to a better understanding of our own identity.

    Hinekura (Becs Arahanga; 2019), Anne Pedersen’s pick for favorite film, embraces change and uses periods of transition as a tool for empowerment and healing. The short film follows a Māori girl’s journey to accepting her role as a warrior and a woman. “For me, this story provides comfort and healing in challenging the narrative that has taught me and millions of other women to feel shame and disgust toward their periods,” Pederson reflects. This shift of tone surrounding a once taboo subject is a major source of healing throughout the film. “It dissolves the distancing to our own bodies that so many other narratives have taught us by ignoring or hiding a natural part of womanhood.” Change is an intrinsic part of healing, involving a release of the old and a creation of space for the new.

    Mary Linn’s choice also centers around change, focusing on the possibilities that exist when we take matters into our own hands, becoming the facilitators of positive change in our own lives. Luh Ayu Manik Mas (Clara Listya Dewi, Ngurah Yudha, BASAbali; 2020) is an animated short that tells the story of a young Balinese girl who becomes a superhero with the power to return a sense of harmony between nature and civilization. After finding strength deep within herself, Luh Ayu transforms into the hero she and everyone in her community needs.

    The film does incredible work in showcasing a strong young woman while inspiring Balinese children to use and learn the language of their home. Linn explains that the film “created by teachers, linguists, and activists as a teaching tool and motivator has engaged youth language learners.” Luh Ayu Manik Mas is a touching example of the potential within storytelling to change and heal relationships off screen with our language, culture, and environment.

    Healing, Womanhood, and Anthropology

    By Mariel Tabachnick

    As made clear by Pedersen and Linn’s selections, storytelling is an important way to facilitate healing for women across cultures. My chosen film, Texo Haxy/Being Imperfect (Patrícia Ferreira, Sophia Pinheiro; 2018)  is a raw and personal portrayal of two women and the dynamic of their relationship within the context of ethnographic fieldwork. As the film unfolds, the viewer follows the interpersonal and working relationship between a Keretxu filmmaker and a Brazilian anthropologist.

    As someone who studied anthropology at university and intends to study visual anthropology in the future, this film struck a chord. It exposes the ethical dilemmas that many anthropologists face when conducting ethnographic fieldwork. The film’s experimental nature juxtaposes the community-produced video made by Ferreira with that of anthropologist Pinheiro, exposing viewers to the complex issues within the field of anthropology through the interactions of two women.

    Joshua Bell also selected an ethnographic documentary: In My Mother’s House (Lina Fruzzetti, Ákos Östör; 2017), which follows filmmaker and anthropologist Fruzzetti as she travels to Italy to learn about her Italian father and Eritrean mother. While this film holds a special place for Bell (Fruzzetti  was once his professor at Brown University), he also mentions the importance of the film in exploring “the complex histories of her multiracial diasporic identity.”

    The film ultimately encapsulates how visual anthropology and ethnographic film can be compelling agents for storytelling. Although the film is driven by a personal narrative, it presents larger global trends related to the structural violence of colonialism and racism. “It helps us remember that while we are composed of stories, we do not need to be controlled by them, and that we are always in the process of discovering and composing new stories,” Bell reflects. In this way, these ethnographic films are often healing for the storyteller, the people being portrayed, and the viewer.

    Healing, Identity, and Reclamation

    By Maddie Van Oostenburg

    The power of storytelling lies in its unique ability to penetrate every layer of being, reaching beyond the physical layer to reshape and readdress emotional and spiritual wounds. Our awareness of the vital importance of emotional and spiritual healing for Indigenous Peoples around the world grew immensely after engagement with several films in this year’s festival. A selection of films from this year’s offerings remind viewers that there is power in both exposing as well as reclaiming history. These films show us that when the voices of Indigenous Peoples are amplified, healing can take place.

    Choosing a favorite film from this year’s festival is a tall task as so many resonated with me on a deep level. However, one film that truly stuck out to me is My Name Is Mudju (Chantelle Murray; 2018),a powerful short film set in Australia in the 1950s. The film centers around a Yugarabul mother and her young daughter, who is taken from home to live in an Christian mission which intends to erase Aboriginal culture in Australia.

    The film is a stunning display of resilience that depicts the heartbreaking reality of assimilation suffered by Indigenous Peoples in locations all over the globe. The power of this story lies in its raw sharing of the deeply painful experiences Indigenous Peoples have endured due to colonization. It is through engaging with Indigenous narratives that we can begin to understand the depth of these wounds still felt to this day. Forced assimilation, the intended erasure of identity, has caused unfathomable suffering. Through storytelling, the path to healing begins.

    Cecelia Halle’s chosen film, Ada Blackjack Rising (Brice Habeger; 2020), presents a related narrative: revealing that the healing process is both beautiful and painful. This dramatic short film is told by Kiminaq Maddy Alvanna-Stimpfle, a young Iñupiaq and Yupik woman from Alaska. She shares the story of the tumultuous Arctic expedition of Iñupiaq woman Ada Blackjack, who was the lone survivor of the voyage and lived for two years alone before being rescued. Her story is one of strength and courage.

    Halle notes the beautiful connection between Ada and the storyteller: “The narration, largely spoken in Iñupiaq, creates a sense of kinship between Ada and Kiminaq, two Iñupiaq women separated by time yet brought close through storytelling.” Stories of strength both fuel and empower us, enabling us to act toward a better future—one of the many ways storytelling promotes healing.

    Ultimately, sharing underrepresented stories is an important aspect of both My Name Is Mudju and Ada BlackJack Rising. Equally important is the notion of reclaiming history, telling stories from those who have been silenced, and taking pride in doing so. A beautiful example of this is Kālewa Correa’s favorite film from the festival, Kapaemahu (Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson; 2020). This visually rich short animation tells the enchanting story of four Mahu—spiritually aware beings of dual masculine and feminine energy—who brought magical healing arts from Tahiti to Hawai‘i thousands of years ago.

    This film, told in the ʻŌlelo Ni‘ihau Hawaiian language, shares a story that honors Native Hawaiian culture. Correa notes, “For a film in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i to be up on the screen is extremely rare, and it fills my heart with aloha hearing the language of my ancestors in such a compelling and honest story.” Correa speaks to how Kapaemahu corrects minority narratives and reclaims traditional stories, explaining that, for the Hawaiian people, this is a form of healing.

    Storytelling provides the vital opportunity to understand the elements of our history that we most deeply resonate with. It provides the boundaries of our identity and reconnects us to what it is that makes us who we are. Ancestral storytelling reminds us of where we come from and informs our actions so that we may live a life rooted in authenticity. The Mother Tongue Film Festival’s offerings this year embody this narrative, whether that is through reclaiming language and history or through sharing personal yet universal experiences.

    Ultimately, Correa says it best: “It is through the understanding of ourselves, our stories, and our language [as kānaka, Native Hawaiians] that we heal.”

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

    Maya Sanchez is an intern for the Mother Tongue Film Festival at the National Museum of Natural History. She is a senior at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she is studying linguistics. 

    Mariel Tabachnick is an intern for the Mother Tongue Film Festival at the National Museum of Natural History. She is a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied anthropology, global studies, and French. This fall, she will be pursuing a master’s in visual anthropology at the University of Manchester.


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