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Group of Native women, all with straight black lines tattooed on their chins, stand pose on a hillside, the sun obscured by pine trees in the background.

Still from Celebrating Our Beauty

Film directed by Alexis Sallee (Iñupiaq)

  • Legacy through the Filmmaker’s Lens: Insights from Mother Tongue Directors

    Legacy is taking center stage at this year’s Mother Tongue Film Festival, embodied in the theme i ka wā ma mua, i ka wā ma hope—“through the past is the future” in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. In the spirit of celebrating those who came before us, we have interviewed via email several film directors whose films are showing in this year’s event to explore legacy and their interpretations of its meaning. We invite you to hear the voices and perspectives of those behind the Mother Tongue camera and witness how language serves as a connecting thread to the past, carrying within its expression the knowledge of who we are and where we come from.

    The term “legacy” rings differently in the consciousness of each individual—and has different meanings in a range of cultural traditions and mother tongues—so we asked the filmmakers to share what comes to mind. The flow of time is central to many responses, demonstrating the power of legacies to speak to humanity across generations.

    Adriana Otero, director of Chi’ Kaan/Snake’s Mouth, describes it with clarity: “A complex of invaluable culture and knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to another.” Through the passage of knowledge and time, legacies are shaped and formed.

    Legacies can be both intangible (song, stories, language) and tangible (our bodies, objects, environment), influencing our daily lives in multiple ways, shaping our thinking, informing our interpretations of the world around us and our actions. As a complex of culture and knowledge, legacies reveal to us the blueprints that built this current moment, serving as a window into our history.

    “I see legacy as a visual,” says Mariona Lloreta, director of the short film A Lua Nunca Morre. “We are all granted a limited amount of time on earth and invited to make the most of it. I always imagine our ancestors running as far as they could in their pursuit of joy, truth, and freedom, and then passing the baton to the next generation. This is what makes it all worth it to me. I constantly ask myself: how far will you go before you hand your baton to the next person?”

    Lloreta frames legacy as something individually and collectively created; she reminds us of our power to influence future generations by striving to fully embody our truth. Learning what this truth looks like is the journey of each individual. It sparks the question of how we can align ourselves with what we innately know we are destined to do. Lloreta’s definition reveals how legacies are not constricted to the past but are an essential aspect of our futures.

    A woman in black athletic clothes readies herself to shoot a basketball, while others dressed in elaborate regalia dance behind her.
    Still from Good Voice Woman
    Film directed by Kyle Bell

    For Kyle Bell of Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town, director of Good Voice Woman, living in alignment with truth means passing down a spirit of love and hope.

    “[Legacy is] so much more than material possessions,” he says. “For me, my spirit and love through film is what I hope to leave for others.” Our legacy is what is left behind when we pass on, he notes. The revelation that we are the ones writing the script of this connecting thread to the future places a great deal of responsibility in our handsa responsibility to both the ones who handed the baton off to us and to those who we will hand it off to next.

    It is this connection to past, present, and future that we seek to honor and celebrate in this year’s festival. So we asked the filmmakers how ancestral wisdom influences what they depict on screen.

    Caroline Monnet (Anishinaabe), director of the feature fiction film Bootlegger, notes the extreme importance she places on the teachings of her ancestors as a filmmaker. She expresses that her first responsibility is to listen. “I don’t hesitate to reach out to community members and people I trust. It’s a long process, and everything is questioned to the detail to make sure that it’s done properly.”

    Educating oneself while filming is a natural catalyst for connecting with the legacies of the past. When we understand the wisdom behind the practices of our ancestors, we commune with the knowledge that is intended to be embodied through them. Alexis Sallee (Iñupiaq) of Celebrating Our Beauty mirrors this sentiment, sharing the importance of depicting communities respectfully and in alignment with their cultural beliefs.

    “It’s very essential when you approach any film project that you know the protocol of that Indigenous community,” she says. “Not all our communities operate the same, and we must recognize that. You have to educate yourself on traditional practices that that particular project is about, and ask for permission especially when filming on particular land.”

    As filmmakers, Sallee and Monnet both acknowledge the responsibility of rightfully presenting communities on screen, noting the importance of listening with respect. This responsibility is rooted in their desire to play their role in the continuation of the legacies of the past, demonstrating the collective nature of the dissemination of storytelling. Thus, legacy building is cyclical in nature, occurring at many levels. In establishing their own legacies as filmmakers, Sallee and Monnet are also pushing forth the legacies of those whose stories they share through the moving image.

    It is clear that the influence of ancestry permeates deeply into the works produced by these Mother Tongue directors. When asked how their films embody the theme of this year’s event, the influence of the past shone even brighter.

    Heriberto Ventura (Triqui), one of the directors of First Time Home, expresses the centrality of ancestral knowledge in his film.

    “Before working on our film, my cousins and I did not understand where our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents came from and what they have experienced. Through the process of making this film, we learned more about our families’ lives and why they encourage us to live the way they do.”

    The shadow of someone’s head in profile partially obscures a projection of a black-and-white photograph of a woman holding a small baby.
    Still from Indian Save The
    Film directed by Keanu Jones

    Film offers an opportunity not only to learn and connect but to exert new narratives by drawing upon the strength of those who came before. Keanu Jones (Diné), director of Indian Save The and a Folklife media intern, shares how the trials of the past for Native communities are actually the catalyzers of strength in identity. Keanu describes the focus of his film as “empowerment from ancestral resilience.” He goes on to describe how the past informs this moment and how strength is a result of struggle.

    “The projection of the past always hangs over us, but there’s something powerful in those hardships,” he says. “We are a representation of that power. We are here, and we are alive more than ever. This is what I wanted to show in my film.”

    Like Sallee and Monnet, Ventura and Jones demonstrate film’s power to connect us to the past and influence the future. Through film creation, a deeper understanding is established, and through this establishment stems a stronger urge to use our capabilities to create futures that are in alignment with the ideals of our ancestors.

    Reconnecting to our ancestry is a means of reconnecting to our power, to that undeniable aspect of being that courses through the veins of each and every one of us. Rahe-wanitanama (Yukayeke Yamaye Guani), director of Mayfly, expresses how the earth serves to connect her with her ancestors.

    “Our primordial mother is our greatest teacher. She is our first ancestor. She expresses herself through plants and animals, and one way to commune with her is to commune with those plants and animals. They are messengers.” She describes how this influences her filmmaking: “While living on the Matincock territories while developing this film, the North American mayfly visited me and became an animal totem for the project.” In Rahe-wanitanama’s case, it is through Mother Earth that her ancestors speak to her.

    While there is certain diversity in the manner with which ancestral communication manifests for these Mother Tongue directors, a connecting thread exists for them all: the influence of ancestral legacy in the filmmaking process. As Jones says, “Filmmaking allows me to have a voice as an individual but also for my ancestors that were silenced.” As individuals, these filmmakers amplify the stories of many, and so the legacy continues.

    From behind, a woman in heavy down jacket faces a large pile of trees cleared and cut for lumber in the snow.
    Still from Bootlegger
    Film directed by Caroline Monnet

    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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