Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



Video Installation Project at Language Fest 2017

Today on the ELAR blog, Remi and Anna Sowa from Chouette Films talk about the video installation project they created in collaboration with ELAR.

Please tell us about yourselves (background) and about your language installation project?

The initial discussion about the language installation project will always be memorable for us. We met Mandana during the AHRC award ceremony at the BFI in November 2015, where our film ‘Kanraxël – The Confluence of Aganck’, the fruit of our collaboration with Prof Lüpke at SOAS, won the Best Research in Film award. In the euphoria of those moments we began to develop the idea for the project. Mandana wanted to create a language installation where people would be surrounded by multiple screens showing ‘mini documentaries’ that use data from ELAR deposits, and which depict the linguistic diversity of different regions. Our motto at Chouette Films is “people’s voices should be heard rather than being left to gather dust on library shelves or to vanish in long-forgotten memories”, so the idea fitted perfectly with our philosophy. Our hope is that the project will make the public more curious about the invaluable ELAR language resources, and will make us all appreciate and celebrate the multitude of languages spoken in the world.

Why did you get involved/starting working on this project?

Working on a project that documents languages that are at risk of vanishing has been such a privilege. Perhaps one day we will be able to tell our kids we had an opportunity to work closely with a language that, sadly, might no longer exist. Alternatively, we hope, the opposite might be true: thanks to projects like these, we will have played a part in preventing the extinction of a language.

Languages are much more than just words: language is at the core of culture. Languages are living organisms that keep transforming and evolving – and that is why they should be protected. We recently read a quote, “Where there is a desire to use a language, creativity naturally follows.” (Positive News, 2016). Although we are not speakers of any of the languages we have been working on, creativity has played a big part in the editing process. We would like to see this as our humble contribution to the preservation of these languages, similar to the Last Whispers exhibition produced by Lena Herzog, but in a visual form so the speaker’s gestures and body language are seen.

Can you talk about your experience working on this project?

Although the aim of the project was to focus on preserving the precious linguistic diversity of the different regions ELAR works in, it quickly became apparent that we would have to consider some serious questions regarding accurate and sensitive representation. How do we edit the material in a culturally and ethically sensitive way? How do we ensure we do not misrepresent or offend anyone, or portray participants as ‘tribal’ or ‘exotic’? Moreover, how can we tell a story without interpreting it – that is, stay truthful and authentic.

Luckily, we were fortunate to have the support of ELAR depositors, who kindly gave us permission to ‘experiment’ freely with their resources. Most depositors have actually been in ‘the field’, and are in constant touch with the communities they work with or, as in the case of Serge Sagna, are native speakers of the languages we were working with. The depositors offered invaluable insight and expertise and, more importantly, had the opportunity to gain first-hand feedback about our work from the language communities themselves. This gave us a tremendous advantage to build on the strengths of the principle of a shared anthropology. We were able to work remotely with each depositor – though it felt was as it they were sitting by our side in our editing suite – and ask for their feedback at different stages, allowing us to fine-tune our work until everyone was completely satisfied with it.

Which languages/deposits did you work with?

We have worked on a variety of languages spoken in very remote places, such as the Tobi Island in the Republic of Palau, and Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. Each of the languages we worked with not only sounded like music to our ears, but we were also amazed at the richness of different meanings, and the cultural concepts they encode. To name a few, we worked on Paunaka, a critically endangered language spoken in Eastern Bolivia and documented by Swintha Danielsen and her team. Today, there are only eleven  speakers left. Similarly, the Vasyugan Khanty language in Siberia, documented by Andrey Filchenko, is only spoken by three people.

It was fascinating to learn the cultural settings in which some of the languages developed. For example, Minderico, spoken in a small village in the centre of Portugal, developed out of a need for wool combers, blanket producers, and traders of the region to protect their business from ‘intruders’. Later, this secret language extended to all social and professional groups and became the dominant means of communication among the villagers. Today, however, there are only 23 fluent Minderico speakers left.

Do you have any comments on the use of language in film?

A number of studies have demonstrated that the act of merging images and sound through the medium of film has a remarkable effect on audiences by touching their emotions, feelings and creating a sense of empathy. It is almost like a peculiar multi-modal language – the language of film, so to speak. We could not phrase it better than the director Alexander Mackendrick, who said: “Actions and images speak faster, and to more of the senses, than speech does… [cinema] is not much non-verbal as pre-verbal’ (Bloore, 2013: 3). It is the power of ‘film language’, and especially documentary language, that drives us. The language of film can engage everyone, regardless of cultural boundaries, levels of literacy or age.

Moreover, it is quite common that while watching a film, audiences realise that ‘images make them hear and sounds make them see’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha in cited McLaughlin & Pearce, 2007: 109). The ELAR video resources we worked with were a great example of this phenomenon. A similar thing can happen while travelling abroad to a country where we do not speak the language: we tend to open our senses and begin to notice different aspects of communication that we would not have otherwise. It is astonishing how much can be understood via non-verbal communication.

What were some challenges? Can you give a specific example?

During the edit of the documentation material of Meakambut, a language spoken by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in Papua New Guinea (provided by Darja Hoenigman), we made a classic mistake. We did not have enough material for the closing shot. As the story takes place in a forest, we added an extra shot showing some trees from a different rainforest which we happened to have in our library, and which we thought looked similar. However, as Darja kindly and patiently explained: “The Meakambut are considered guardians of a territory that carries an important, mythical meaning to them. They would immediately recognise the tree at the end of the film as ‘alien’ to that area. For the Meakambut people, spirits of the bush inhabit trees, stones, creeks and caves, and there are ancestral spirits around in rock shelters. Each prominent tree carries the name of a spirit, and many of them have serious taboos around them”. So even though the shot we had used of the tree was only four seconds long, it would have been extremely offensive to the Meakambut, to the extent that it could cause land disputes, or worse, make them believe that a curse had been put on them through breaking land taboos. We refined our ethical sensitivity on this subject and learned a valuable lesson from it.

What have you learned working on this project?

Working on the project has been a reminder that the question of representing ‘others’ is directly linked to ethical issues. It was our responsibility to gauge the balance between public appropriateness (e.g. whether or not to use a clip of a dog stew prepared by the Dulong people in China in one of the videos), authenticity and storytelling.

The wisdom of proverbs advises us that, if we are to see further, we must “stand on the shoulders of giants.” For us, one such ‘giant’ is Brian Winston, a former governor of the British Film Institute, whose words gained particular significance in the context of this project when asserting that “the real difficulties of ethical documentary production rest far more on the relationship between documentarist and participant than between documentarist and audience” (Winston, 2000:1). While filmmakers should never underestimate their audience, Darja’s video exemplifies perfectly that our prime responsibility is towards the participants. The Meakambut people do not care about the aesthetics of a film cut, or about the film conventions that we would like to follow – their rules about what does, or does not, fit together are different. It is our job to learn how to understand their views, and our duty to respect them. Of course, we still try to follow filmmaking conventions, as well as the rules and regulations of our own society, but they can never come before local demands have been satisfied.

Another ‘giant’ on whose shoulders we would like to stand, and whose work  is of particular significance to the project, is Trinh T. Minh-ha. She developed the concept of ‘speaking nearby’ (as opposed to ‘speaking about’ something or someone). It is a very simple idea, and sadly, not often adhered to in filmmaking practice. When dealing with power relations, speaking for, about, and on behalf of differs significantly from ‘speaking nearby’. An example of this would be the way one speaks about someone close to them, their mother for example, in their presence, as opposed to when they are not around. For example, if the mother is not present, the close relationship makes it difficult to talk about her objectively; however, if she is present, the way she is being talked about is may be very different as the speaker will be careful in the way she is addressed and spoken about, and she may respond. Similarly, in editing we had to bear in mind the concept of ‘speaking nearby’. This made us more conscious of the presence of the participants, which in turn had an impact on the ethical and aesthetic choices we made.

Can you speak on one or two obvious differences between your project and documentary linguistics?

This is a very interesting question, and in fact we have found that there are many similarities between our work and language documentation. In our work, we often follow David McDougall, a pivotal figure in the development of ethnographic cinema and visual anthropology. McDougall argued that observational documentaries are most effective when they allow the people depicted in them to be the ‘bearers of the immeasurable wealth and effort of human experience’ (McDougall, 1998: 130). The priorities of research also de-emphasise the filmmaker, because to pay attention to the observer is to draw valuable attention away from the subject at hand. This methodology is reflected in language documentation, where “observed communicative events” (Himmelmann 1998) – that is, observed with minimal influence of the researcher – play a central role in the analysis of linguistic behaviour. Since most ELAR depositors use this methodology to film daily language use, we found that participants were very familiar and at ease with the presence of a camera. Nick Broomfield’s observation,”it’s not the presence of the camera that changes people’s behaviour, it’s the relationship they have with the people behind it’ (Winston, 2013: 50), is especially relevant here.

As for differences, we think another challenge to ethical documentary production is the question of preserving and documenting events versus creating a narrative from the event witnessed. This is linked to the degree and nature of intervention of a filmmaker. For some, the question of authenticity  invariably clashes with aesthetic considerations or the need for storytelling, but we prefer to liberate ourselves from this by acknowledging that the ‘documentary’ will never be representative of the real world, and that the filmmaker cannot capture shots of life as it would be if the camera were not there. Instead, “documentaries are performative acts whose truth comes into being only at the moment of filming” (Bruzzi, 2006: 10). Here, Bruzzi reminds us that we must acknowledge a different concept of ‘truth’ that does not deny reconstruction and re-enactment.

Although we did not film the material we worked with, this principle has helped us to liberate ourselves during the editing process. Afterwards, we relied on the feedback from the local people to judge the authenticity of edited material. To conclude, and in the words of Trinh T. Minh-ha: “For me, the best documentaries are those that remain aware of their fictional nature as image, and the best fictions are those that document the reality of their own fictions” (McLaughlin & Pearce, 2007: 106).


Thank you, Anna and Remy! To see Anna and Remi’s video installation, come join us at Language Fest at SOAS tomorrow (February 21) from 12:00-17:00. 

Blog post by Remi and Anna Sowa

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