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. 

Language Fest at SOAS on February 21st, 2017

ELAR and the SOAS World Languages Institute (SWLI) are excited to announce the Language Fest on 21 February 2017 at SOAS, University of London. This will be a special one day language festival, inviting members of the SOAS and wider community to experience SOAS’s work with languages.

Artist Judith Glynn’s work visually representing the development of Indo-European Languages.

Dr Sheena Shah, Dr Hannah Gibson and Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, the organisers of the event, have brought together SOAS staff, students and artists showcasing their work on, with and through language.

Language Fest highlights the importance of languages and diversity to SOAS and will mark International Mother Language Day 2017. International Mother Language Day is a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of Bangla as one of the two national languages of (then) Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Some highlights of the events will be:

Metaphors we live by: the body and expression of envy. 12-5pm Paul Webley Wing, Atrium walkway.

Mary Kuper’s Artworks inspired by metaphors of the body

Using the Endangered Languages Archive resources and linguistic studies of metaphors, artist Mary Kuper has created six pictures combining metaphorical expressions from different languages. These pictures express basic human emotions, such as happiness and jealousy. The paintings encompass the richness of human experience and their translation into linguistic expression. In addition to exhibiting these works, we will feature a wall  open to students who wish to contribute striking metaphors from languages they speak.

Home Speak. Poetry Slam 5-7pm Paul Webley Wing, Atrium.

Zena Edwards and the SOAS Spoken Word Society are producing and hosting ‘Home Speak.’ The theme of this poetry slam will feature the languages we speak, can’t speak and don’t speak. Poets will deliver creative offerings on speaking other languages, being mono-lingual and how language helps us navigate our inner worlds, our own identities, and our environments. This work aims to explore how language connects with ideas of diversity, ethnicity and belonging.

Poet Zena Edwards will lead a poetry slam on the theme ‘Home Speak’

Seeing Endangered Languages & Hearing Endangered Voices. 12-5pm Paul Webley Wing, Cloister space.

Language Documentation

Visitors and students will have the opportunity to watch a selection 3 minute films showcasing materials from the Endangered Languages Archive. Anna and Remi Sowa, founders of Chouette films, have produced these films together with the language documenters as a visual testament to their work.

The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS supports linguists, anthropologists and community members worldwide to document the world’s linguistic diversity and to deposit this material in SOAS digital Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR). They go and live in the communities and record, learn, translate and transcribe languages which will be falling silent in the next 5, 10, 20 or 50 years. Speakers talk about their past and their current lives and what they expect from the future. They speak about how they make things, how they worship and also hunt.

Come, watch and listen to these speakers and learn from our staff and students about the effects of globalisation on language diversity and how SOAS research and teaching affects this process.

In addition to the above events and exhibits we will host a series of interactive talks and language taster sessions throughout the day in the Paul Webley Atrium walkway. Topics include:

  • Click Away: An Introduction to Khoisan languages- Sheena Shah
  • Mother Tongues: Multilingual repertoires of Senegal- Abbie Hantgan and Chelsea Krajcik
  • Meet the SOAS Grambank Coding Team
  • Sylheti Language Taster Session- SOAS Sylheti Project
  • The importance of Newar language (Nepal Bhasa) as a mark of identity for Newar communities in London- Newar Language Society

To find out more and see the full programme of events, visit the SWILI event page.

Be sure to follow us on FaceBookInstagram and Twitter to receive updates and information about Language Fest.

Celebrate Linguistic Diversity Online With the Mother Language Meme Challenge

Join the Mother Language Meme Challenge by creating a humorous or reflective internet meme in your native tongue. Starting today and running through February 21st, we invite you to take part in this fun online campaign to commemorate International Mother Language Day.

International Mother Language Day was founded to promote and celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity around the world, with a special emphasis on indigenous, minority, heritage, and endangered languages. With the help of digital tools and the internet, there is now a unique space for expression and connecting with others also working to revitalize their mother tongue.

Co-organized by Rising Voices and our friends at the Living Tongues InstituteFirst Peoples’ Cultural CouncilIndigenous TweetsEndangered Languages ProjectFirst Languages Australia, and the Digital Language Diversity Project, as well as a number of global partners, the Mother Language Meme Challenge invites you to put your creativity and passion for languages to work by creating a meme in your mother language.

Meme in the Tének language from México. Created by Luís Flores.

Meme in the Tének language from México. Created by Luís Flores.

To take part, just follow the simple steps outlined on the Challenge’s website (, which includes finding an image, adding text and hashtags, including #MemeML, and sharing on your favorite social media platform. You will also find links to some free, web-based platforms to create and save your creations. In the month prior to International Mother Language Day 2017, we’ll be sharing, retweeting, and liking contributions from around the world and featuring some of our favorites here on Rising Voices.

If you are an organization, collective, project, or other group currently working on language revitalization around the world, we are looking for new partners to join us to promote this Challenge. We are also looking for others to help translate the site into more languages so that we can reach speakers of more languages. Please contact us for more information.

ELAR is proud to announce we will be partnering with Rising Voices,  Living Tongues InstituteFirst Peoples’ Cultural CouncilIndigenous TweetsEndangered Languages ProjectFirst Languages Australia, and the Digital Language Diversity Project for the Mother Language Meme Challenge.

This post originally appeared on the Rising Voices blog on 23rd Jan, 2017.