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An auditorium is pictured facing the audience. The room, with orange walls and a purple ceiling, is packed with people wearing black, virtual reality headsets sitting in their chairs.

View of the audience at the 2019 Last Whispers screening, Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center.

Photo courtesy of Lena Herzog

  • Language Revitalization in Reflection: Six Years of the Mother Tongue Film Festival

    As I began my experience with the Mother Tongue Film Festival, I couldn’t have imagined how deeply it would impact my understanding of the world around me.

    September 2020 marked the beginning of my engagement with the festival, and one of my duties was to preview films in consideration for the event. In the process of watching Mother Tongue films, my eyes, or ears rather, opened to a number of Indigenous and minoritized languages that I had never heard previously. As I dove deeper into these stories through language, I became aware—more than ever before—of the power of film to share stories and raise awareness of the lifeways of people from around the globe. I recognized how films produced in endangered or Indigenous languages raise collective consciousness to the existence of diverse worldviews. Moreover, I realized how linguistically and culturally diverse films serve as vessels of knowledge that can share elements of distinct culture into the future. In this way, film serves as a physical manifestation of language revitalization.

    The Mother Tongue Film Festival is an official event of Recovering Voices, a collaborative initiative between the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, promoting endangered language revitalization efforts worldwide. For six years now, the festival has advocated for the preservation and celebration of language and takes concrete action in this quest of advocacy.

    Inspired by this year’s online festival, I took a dive into its past editions, exploring the myriad of programs and events Mother Tongue has developed over the years. Join me as we meander through the history of Mother Tongue, highlighting the work the festival has completed in support of language revitalization.

    2016: The Beginning

    February 21, 2016: International Mother Language Day and the official launch of the first Mother Tongue Film Festival. As the first film festival of its kind, it amplified the mission of International Mother Language Day through its richly curated selection of thirty-one films featuring nineteen languages across eight regions.

    The first feature film screened was a 2016 version of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977; George Lucas) dubbed into Diné bizaad (Navajo). The choice to dub Star Wars was a carefully premeditated decision by project leader Manuelito Wheeler. With its extreme global popularity and cult-like following, the audience for this film is already massive; dubbing the film to Diné bizaad offers the opportunity to not only strengthen and promote language use within the community, but also enter into spaces beyond—extending the language’s vitality and influence. In an interview with NPR, Wheeler explained that more resources for language learning are necessary, and the film seeks to serve as such. According to Wheeler, “This was an idea that I felt was a way to promote our culture, promote our language, a way to save our language.”

    The 2016 festival set the tone. It laid the foundation of Mother Tongue’s mission: to celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity by showcasing films and filmmakers from around the world, highlighting the crucial role languages play in our daily lives. In the years to follow, the drive to revitalize language only grew and intensified.

    2017: Growing Awareness

    In now customary fashion, the 2017 festival opened on International Mother Language Day, February 21, with an initiative to heighten awareness and inspire audiences. The schedule included thirty-two films in thirty-one languages, spanning twelve regions worldwide.

    A notable selection was the dramatic feature Avant les Rues/Before the Streets (2016; Chloé Leriche). A young Atikamekw man seeks to cleanse himself emotionally and spiritually after committing a crime that goes horribly wrong. From a place of deep shame and guilt, he turns to the traditional knowledge of his ancestors to come to terms with his actions. The film celebrates the revival of traditional knowledge, while acting as a piece of traditional knowledge itself—being spoken in Atikamekw. The film’s cast, composed almost entirely of non-professional Atikamekw actors, are shown in their own community, speaking their own language.

    “Working in the language makes you accountable to the community,” festival co-director Amalia Cordova emphasizes. “The primary community where you’re shooting becomes the main judge, audience, filter, and vetter of whatever you’re making. It makes transparent a level of accountability.”

    Films in the language give the power back to the community and reframe the narrative, setting the stage for an authentic representation that honors the community reflected in the film.

    2018: Opening the Call

    The 2018 festival once again brought together filmmakers, language experts, and practitioners from around the globe to bolster language revitalization efforts. It showcased twenty-eight films in twenty-nine languages from fourteen regions of the world.

    Falling on International Mother Language day, opening night screened the 2016 animated short Ja b’ajlami sok ja chulchuli/The Tiger and the Grasshopper. The film is one in a series of animated shorts  produced by 68 Voces, each narrated in one of the sixty-eight Indigenous languages of Mexico.

    Founded by director Ana Gabriela Badillo Sánchez, 68 Voces (“Voices”) seeks to empower Indigenous communities by offering a platform to share traditional stories and knowledge through these playful shorts—raising awareness to the vast diversity of Indigenous languages across Mexico. By offering resources that ground Indigenous communities in their own cultural knowledge, 68 Voces aims to ignite further passion and pride in the use and revitalization of the mother languages.

    Following the 68 Voces animation was the award-winning documentary Niugaa Yugaa/Keep Talking (2017; Karen Lynn Weinberg). The film follows four Alaskan Native women fighting to save their language, Kodiak Alutiiq, with fewer than forty fluent speakers. Acting as the language’s caretakers, they open a language learning camp for young people, emphasizing care and intentionality in its revitalization. After the screening, the audience was treated to a moving conversation with the director in dialogue with a language camp participant, eighteen-year-old Sadie Cole.

    2019: UN International Year of Indigenous Languages

    The year 2019 proved to be a special year as it was proclaimed by the United Nations the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Our festival was honored to serve as an official event of this global call to action, featuring sixty films and audio-visual experiences in sixty-six languages from across twenty-two regions, and extending its reach farther than ever before.

    The opening program encapsulated the spirit of language vitality, entitled “Renewal and Hope.” It included the award-winning feature SGagwaay K’uuna/Edge of the Knife (2018; Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown), which tells a Haida ancestral tale of a man who, filled with grief after a tragic accident, transitions into Gaagiixiid, the Haida Wildman. With dialogue entirely in the Haida language, which had fewer than twenty speakers at the time, nearly all of the actors had to enhance their language skills in classes. The creation of the film itself was effectively an act of language revitalization.

    The 2019 Festival closed with a sobering yet lyrical “sound oratorio” presented at the Kennedy Center. Last Whispers (2019; Lena Herzog) is an immersive virtual reality experience which raises collective consciousness to the loss of the world’s linguistic diversity. Featuring forty-one languages artfully arranged into an audiovisual installation, viewers enter into a world where lost and endangered languages are voiced, and where silence on language-loss is not an option. Last Whispers served as an empowering reminder of Mother Tongue’s mission, to highlight the crucial role of language in our daily lives and across the world.

    2020: Women in Filmmaking

    The fifth edition of the festival was another hit, centering on the work of women in the preservation and transmission of culture and language for future generations. Featuring twenty-one films in twenty-eight languages from twenty-two regions, the festival proved that voices of women are as powerful as the languages they speak in.

    A show-stopping program that beautifully captured the 2020 theme was the “Sea of Islands” program. It featured Vai (2019; Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana, Mīria George, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Nicole Whippy), a stunning film that brings the viewer on a journey through vignettes from the different stages of life of a woman named Vai. The character is played by eight Indigenous actresses, each native to a unique Pacific territory.

    The film spans the islands of Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kuki Airani (Cook Islands), Samoa, Niue, and Āotearoa (New Zealand), with the Indigenous language of each island proudly spoken in each section. The women are united as one by their Pacific identity and their connection to water, or vai in each language. Following the program, festival co-director Joshua Bell hosted a Q&A with one of the directors, Becs Arahanga.

    2021: One Hundred Days of Storytelling

    Over the years, the work the Mother Tongue Film Festival has presented as a mode of strengthening language revitalization has been rooted in a mission of growth and impact. This year has been no different. The sixth festival featured thirty-nine languages throughout forty-five exceptional films which span twenty-five regions across the world in an entirely virtual experience, over an unprecedented fourteen weeks—exactly 100 days. Unconstrained by geographical location and embracing the potential of an online film festival, Mother Tongue has carried the message of language revitalization to all corners of the globe.

    The 2021 festival centered on the theme “The Healing Power of Storytelling,” embracing the glorious potential that exists within multilingual storytelling. Though this year’s online event closed on May 31, several films and all the discussions remain available on our website, so visitors can continue to explore.

    As a 2021 festival intern, I am proud to have witnessed the unfolding of this spectacular digital event and can say from my own experience that Mother Tongue has changed me for the better. The importance of linguistic and cultural representation in the media and beyond has never been more clear to me. I now recognize that within a language exists a worldview—and how precious is that? A unique and sacred perspective that asks to be celebrated. It begins with awareness, passion, and action, and the Mother Tongue Film Festival is cultivating all three.

    Want to dive even deeper into the history of Mother Tongue? See our new Five-Year Report (PDF).

    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.

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