Wednesday, April 30, 2008

IFFB 2008: The Linguists

I love documentaries like The Linguists, and really think that the IFFB should program more of them. One of my first experiences with this festival was a crushing disappointment - I thought that The Future of Food was going to be an exciting look at cool science only to get a screed about how Monsanto has abused the hell out of U.S. patent law. I don't regret learning that, although the presentation rubbed me the wrong way - not just within the movie, but how during the introduction the host said the Cambridge liberals should love it. What, I thought, of the Cambridge biotech professionals? Where's the love for them?

(Yeah, I'm likely never letting that experience go. Sorry, IFFB folks.)

I was lucky to get to two this of these science-oriented documentaries this year, and I tend to think the local festivals could do well programming more of them. There are a ton of biotech and other professionals and academics in science fields in the area who might go for them, along with a goodly number of nerds like me who eat this stuff up. It's probably a tough field to mine, of course - the line between a documentary that gives an interesting overview of a field without using some sort of political issue as a jumping-off point and something that cineastes might dismiss as a mere "educational/technical film" is probably blurry.

Not that there's anything wrong with education films - I suspect a good one is just not considered as worthy an accomplishment as an issue-oriented or personality-centered documentary, much as a good romantic comedy or melodrama isn't as respected as a character-driven drama.

The Linguists

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The situation laid out at the start of The Linguists sounds familiar from tales of the Amazon rain forest being despoiled; the difference is that instead of unknown animal species being lost, it is ways to communicate. There are approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world, but that number is shrinking steadily; it's estimated one is lost roughly every two weeks. This sort of attrition may be less of a direct threat to human survival than the loss of biodiversity, but it still diminishes us.

Among those trying to preserve humanity's linguistic diversity are David Harrison and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute. They travel the world recording and documenting dying languages, sharing their findings with the local speakers and archiving it for posterity. During the film, we see them seek out Chulym speakers in Siberia, Sora speakers in India, Kallawaya speakers in Bolivia, and others. We see how they do their jobs and learn both why linguistic diversity is a good thing and what the threats to it are.

It's fascinating material, and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting it. The locales where these dying languages can be found tend to be remote, so it's often an adventure getting there and then not necessarily safe once they do arrive. The film's three directors manage to show just enough of the interview process to give us the excitement of newly-acquired knowledge without making it tedious for the large chunk of the audience that is not passionate about comparative linguistics. There's humor tinged with tragedy in how David and Greg handle the fact that most of the speakers of endangered languages are elderly and often nearly deaf, and certain situations are just perfect story set-ups: Kallawaya is a somewhat secret language mostly used by local shamans that many linguists claimed didn't exist as a fully functional language; their driver in Siberia reveals himself to be fluent in Chulym after a frustrating day of dealing with deaf old ladies.

David and Greg are also enjoyable screen presences; though they did not generally work as a team before the movie, they have a quick rapport and bounce ideas off each other well. They are quick to acknowledge the other's strengths, razzing each other and the interns as the opportunity arises. What's more, they always come across as genuinely excited about their work without ever giving off the vibe of being stuffy or out-of-touch academics - heck, when one comments that he can't understand how a linguist could devote his career to the study of French syntax when there are languages going extinct, we get the impression that they don't have much tolerance for the type, either.

The Linguists is short; its seventy minutes will ultimately wind up a good fit for an hour-and-a-half slot on some cable channel. The folks who stumble upon it there are in for a treat; it does an unusually good job of making a seemingly minor and theoretical discipline more urgent and exciting than you'd expect.

Also on EFC.

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