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Film still of a young woman inside a vehicle, looking outside and holding a cigarette. We see reflections of palm trees in the window.

Still from Waikiki (2020), directed by Christopher Kahunahana

  • What Is a Mother Tongue Film?

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    With opening performances by drum circles and musical artists, film screenings in famous theaters around Washington, D.C., and panels with film directors, actors, and language experts, the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival has always been a dynamic showcase of the work of language revitalization through film and beyond. 

    At its core, Mother Tongue celebrates linguistic and cultural diversity by amplifying the work of filmmakers globally and by striving to improve accessibility to Indigenous film. While the festival may look very different this year (it has transitioned to a monthly, online screening series), its spirit remains the same: providing an opportunity to see the world through a new lens. According to the festival’s founding director, Joshua Bell, every Mother Tongue film “opens people up to the human capacity to learn.”

    Behind the scenes, the Mother Tongue team works like a puzzle, bringing together different visions, backgrounds, and ideas to form the bigger picture. Conversations in the selection meetings are fluid, with all opinions welcome. Through this process, everyone on the team—including us interns—makes a case for the films we believe best exemplify the Mother Tongue spirit. This year, it quickly became clear to us that the festival is not limited to any one kind of film. As newcomers, jumping into this dynamic process left us with many questions. Before joining the team, we thought the definition of “Mother Tongue film” seemed simple: films that highlighted endangered, minoritized, or Indigenous languages.

    But after taking part in the curation process, we realized that this isn’t the only criteria. There are films in languages with millions of speakers that still have the Mother Tongue spirit. There are films not centered around language that captivated the entire team. There are films that might have been overlooked at first, only to have re-entered the discussion after we looked at them in a new light.

    So what exactly makes a Mother Tongue film?

    To better understand the concept of Mother Tongue film, we interviewed the curators of the festival: Joshua Bell (curator of globalization at the National Museum of Natural History), Amalia Córdova (Latinx digital curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage), Kālewa Correa (curator of Hawai‘i and the Pacific at the Asian Pacific American Center), and Mary Linn (curator of language and cultural vitality at Folklife).

    A hazy blue and green graphic reads “Mother Tongue Film Festival, the healing power of storytelling, monthly screenings February 21-May 2021.” In the background is a diagonal smattering of small dark blue and teal triangles and small light green circles.

    What is a mother tongue, and why is it important? Linn answered in linguistic terms: a mother tongue is someone’s first language, the language or languages that one grew up speaking in the home. She stressed the personal and emotional connection that we as humans share with our native languages. Our emotional connections are heightened if the language becomes threatened or endangered. Language is more than a simple medium to express our thoughts. It’s a lens that allows us to make sense of and interpret the world. It offers us the tools to share and understand our own experience.

    As a defining feature of being human, language is central to the creation and maintenance of our relationships. Bell spoke about language in terms of kinship and how the use of our mother tongues is fundamental in forming and sustaining relationships. Focusing on mother tongues, he says, “foregrounds language in a way that everyone can connect to, and through that helps create a space for mutual respect and understanding.”

    With an understanding of the term “mother tongue,” uncovering the nature of a Mother Tongue film was a more involved process. Córdova invited us to think of Mother Tongue film less as a distinct genre and more as a filter to apply when viewing films. Using the Mother Tongue filter means critically considering the function of language in a film. The curators ask themselves, “What work is being done by using this language specifically?”

    For example, Córdova explained that working in an Indigenous language can be an act of sovereignty and resilience. “Like the bodies of the people that speak these languages, these languages have been historically threatened, dispersed and suppressed,” she says. “The existence of the language, in a way, transcends attempts of ethnocide, genocide, and territorial displacement.” Through Mother Tongue film, we see language working intentionally, highlighting themes of rootedness, identity, affiliation, connection, and community.  

    Mother Tongue film is an expansive category that has the power to bring us out of our comfort zone and provide a myriad of perspectives. Bell reminded us that Mother Tongue films help to deconstruct the myth of monolingualism as the prevailing global norm by putting language center stage, revealing the endless potential that exists within multilingual storytelling and being.

    Each film is chosen for the film festival because it resonates with the curators in some way, with each curator’s background and expertise influencing their decision. This is reflected in the history of the festival. Bell emphasized the significance of the emotional impact of outstanding films and specifically recalled a particular film that made him tear up every time he watched it.

    Restless River (2019), directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Piujuq Ivalu, tells the story of a young Inuk woman navigating her changing reality after being assaulted by a soldier near the end of World War II. Faced with profound life-altering experiences, including motherhood and cultural genocide as a result of colonialism, she is compelled to search within herself for her own strength and resilience. With much of the dialogue spoken in Inuktitut, Restless River is a true testament to the fortitude of Indigenous identity, with language playing a key role in asserting this identity.

    Another notable choice was for the 2021 opening night film, Waikiki (2020), directed by Christopher Kahunahana. This film took us all on an emotional and harrowing journey that guided us to introspection. Correa, who was born and raised in Hawaiʻi, described his experience watching Waikiki: “I watched it and I cried. It spoke to the experience that happens to a lot of us in Hawai‘i. The film itself is centered around this idea of mental illness in society and disconnection from the land. I think that is something that affects all Native Hawaiians. We’re always trying to get back to the land. We are always trying to find that connection.”

    These films made a lasting impression because language is a grounds for and a form of intimacy. For those of us who live away from our motherland, it is a way to reconnect with our family and culture. For those of us whose motherland has been taken away, it roots us to our land.

    Another key piece of the Mother Tongue puzzle is the filmmaking process. A film that exemplifies this is the dramatic feature SGagwaay K’uuna / Edge of the Knife (2018), which we screened in 2019. Directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, SGagwaay K’uuna is an adaptation of a popular Haida story, passed down by each generation through song and performance. Set on the Canadian Pacific coast of Haida Gwaii in the nineteenth century, the film tells the harrowing story of a traumatized man, Adiits’ii, stranded in the woods after a tragic accident. He is tormented by his past actions which ultimately sparks his transformation into the Gaagiixiid, the wildman.

    Watching it for the first time, we interns felt that its focus on interpersonal relationships and trauma were powerful and transcended cultural boundaries. The themes of loss, guilt, and redemption parallel the process of language revival and demonstrate the power of community.These themes are universally impactful, and we personally connected in a way that surprised us.

    Alongside captivating cinematography, the film’s remarkable feat is its contribution to the Haida language, whose native speakers worked with language learners to create a film entirely in their language. “The final product raises awareness about the existence of this language [Haida],” Córdova says. “The process of making the film itself does incredible work of getting more people to speak it. This is one shining example of the apuesta, or the approach of putting all your stakes in. It is not an easy thing to do.”

    To both Córdova and Linn, SGagwaay K’uuna was an important and experimental venture into language revitalization. Linn shared, “When the little boy started speaking Haida, I could tell it was his second language. That’s when I started crying. They’re putting on this major film in a language that they’re learning as they’re going. That was really amazing.” SGagwaay K’uuna captured the essence of a Mother Tongue film, not only through the film itself, but through the filmmaking process. The emotional and compelling story is only furthered by the language revitalization efforts central to the filmmaking process.

    Indeed, there may often be a higher degree of accountability for filmmakers and/or actors who work in languages that are not their own. In these cases, the reliance on the community for direction is fundamental to the film’s success while ensuring the community is the central audience for the work. For Indigenous filmmakers, the decision to work in their mother tongue can be an act of conservation, a way to immortalize both language and culture.

    In the beginning, it was challenging for us to jump into the Mother Tongue curation process without extensive knowledge of film. Despite the learning curve, we were able to emerge with a better understanding of Mother Tongue film and its broad and expansive nature. While Mother Tongue highlights minoritized and Indigenous languages, it goes beyond that. Mother Tongue focuses on the power language has in connecting us to ourselves, to our communities, and to cultures beyond our own.

    Mother Tongue is about reflection, representation, and community. Throughout the curation process, we learned that Mother Tongue is not tied down to any explicit definition. It is exactly this openness in expression that makes Mother Tongue, Mother Tongue. Like Córdova says, “it is a term that’s generative and boundless.”

    Film still of a man, shirtless with a tribal tattoo of a creature on his chest, looking beyond. Behind him are a wooden structure and a totem pole.
    Still from SGagwaay K’uuna / Edge of the Knife (2018), directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown

    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.

    This project received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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