Ideal for introductory linguistic as well as cultural anthropology classes focused on the nation-state or childhood, this 104 minute documentary film helps students better understand the real-world complexities of conducting anthropological fieldwork with a focus on the documentation and preservation of endangered languages. In multiple arrival stories, we see how two linguists, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, struggle to locate the ever-decreasing speakers of endangered languages in Siberia, India, and Bolivia. While preliminary research helps them select a region as well as connect with key informants, they also depend on snowball sampling as they rush to track down native speakers with whom they conduct exploratory interviews. This documentary highlights how the production of anthropological knowledge is shaped by the relationships between local indigenous communities around the world and nation-states. Documenting endangered languages, as the film illustrates, also necessitates studying the forms of oppression that endanger them.
The film stresses that the generational decline of people who speak endangered languages is often the result of forced assimilation projects like the state-driven separations of indigenous children from their communities. Places like boarding schools where teachers shame children for speaking indigenous languages decreases the likelihood these children will teach them to future generations.
The film could also complement anthropology of childhood classes because it calls attention to the agential roles children play in language acquisition and transmission. We see this in India where students from the Bonda tribe are required to learn English, which is perceived as a money-making language that promises children and their families a better future.
How languages become linked with the past, present, and the future is key to addressing the ways in which power-dynamics prioritize learning imperialist languages exclusively. The film underscores the point that language preservation efforts will not be successful if they are only driven by Western academics. Addressing the diminishment of linguistic diversity requires a much more systemic approach, such as the active participation of indigenous communities in language preservation projects, as well as widespread political reforms that, for instance, require national educational systems to bolster multi-language learning. The linguists emphasize that collective action is needed now because the world is losing indigenous languages at exponential rates. And the risks for losing humanity’s linguistic diversity are profound because when languages become endangered the diverse ways people understand and experience the world become endangered as well.
Check out the trailer for The Linguists on Youtube. To view the complete movie, see if you can access it through a library or purchase a copy directly from the Ironbound Films production company’s website here.
PBS also has complementary resources for teaching the film on their website. They introduce the topic of language loss, give examples of how words can reflect unique worldviews, offer opportunities to hear them spoken, define key linguistic terms, and provide references for further reading on endangered languages. They also offer a teaching guide and unit focused on teaching students in high school or college about language loss.
Resource contributed by: Megan Neal, University of California, Irvine
Megan Neal is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on how disabled citizens in La Paz, Bolivia challenge normative understandings of development, the senses, and political participation. She also serves as the Web Content Producer for the Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal’s website.
Photograph: Trans performer, model, and AIDS educator, Octavia St. Laurent walking in a ball in Miramax film, Paris is Burning.
I’ve used clips from the ethnographic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) in undergraduate anthropology courses, as well as a graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, to teach linguistic concepts of speech acts and speech communities. The film presents an intimate portrayal of drag “ball” culture in New York in the 1980s. In one scene, drag performer Dorian Corey explains the nuanced difference between “reading” and “shade.” Reading is the art of playful insult, considered somewhat of an art form in this community. Shade, on the other hand, is considered to be the nonverbal counterpart to reading; it includes alluding to flaws with gestures or ignoring a person altogether. The way these forms of speech are portrayed in the film can not only be used to discuss Bauman’s speech acts, but also how language can illuminate or build speech communities.
There is also potential for it to be used to teach gender and kinship, and it would be a brilliant addition to an undergraduate cultural anthropology course syllabus. The drag performers in the film are frequently working to enact an authentic gender performance on stage, which they dub “realness” (as in “butch queen realness,” or the performance by gay men of male heterosexuality). The film simultaneously portrays the daily struggles of gay men of color and trans women of color to perform gender off stage. It is through these struggles, along with the shared experiences of homophobia, transphobia, racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, that this community is able to fashion forms of alternative kinship and intentional families. Various individuals in the film discuss these topics outright, providing ample scaffolding for students to get a basic sense of these ideas before discussing them more in depth.
The film is 78 minutes long. If used in class to discuss language, I would recommend finding relevant clips online (like the one posted above), providing some background on the film, its cast of characters, and the significance before showing them. If used in class to discuss gender performance and alternative kinship, I think it’s worthy of being shown in full.
For a critique of the film from multiple angles (e.g., the position of the documentarian, drag in the film as misogynistic), see:
hooks, bell. 1992. “Is Paris Burning?.” Black looks: Race and representation. 145-156.
For an exploration of authenticity in gender performance, see:
Butler, Judith. 1997. “Gender is burning: Questions of appropriation and subversion.” Cultural Politics 11:381-395.
Teaching Resource Contributed by: Evan P. Conaway, University of California, Irvine
Evan P. Conaway is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how computer servers shape the way gamers experience place, memory, and law. With funding from an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, he is exploring the experiences of gamers, companies, and museums who are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and resurrect online game worlds. He is also a Contributing Editor at Platypus, the official blog of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing
Yo regularmente uso el corto documental de PBS/Frontline titulado The Woman’s Kingdom (El Reino de las Mujeres) en mis cursos de Introducción a la Antropología, para presentar material sobre el matrimonio, familia, y parentesco. La película presenta a la minoría étnica matrilineal del sudoeste de China, los Mosuo, centrándose en la práctica del “matrimonio ambulante” y la estructura de la familia matrilocal Mosuo. Frecuentemente uso el filme para iniciar unidades sobre parentesco y familia con el objetivo de dar a conocer la diversidad cultural en los sistemas de parentesco, destacando el hecho que los patrones culturales de la paternidad y matrimonios de cohabitación no son culturalmente universales. He descubierto que esta es una forma muy impactante y memorable de introducirse a estos temas para muchos estudiantes.
La película también discute
las presiones que están afectando y originando cambios en la sociedad Mosua
como: la degradación ambiental, el turismo y la penetración de los valores
culturales de la mayoría China han.La película puede ser usada para
comparar y contrastar las luchas que muchos grupos de etnias minoritarias
enfrentan en los Estados-nación grandes. Los estudiantes pueden apreciar que si
bien el cambio cultural es inevitable y ningún grupo cultural permanece
estático, algunos cambios pueden ser más dañinos que otros.
También, he usado el filme
para destacar el tema del Agente Humano. Cerca del final de la versión completa
del filme, observamos que la protagonista principal de la película, Chacuo, se
resiste a sus propias normas culturales, eligiendo vivir con el padre de su
hija, un hombre Han que conoció cuando el visito su comunidad como turista. La
pareja no tiene planes de casarse, sin embargo, siguen comprometidos el uno con
el otro, contrariando las expectativas de sus familias y culturas. Su relación
de pareja no tradicional es una ilustración de como en todas las sociedades,
las personas tienen la capacidad de ajustarse, resistir o incluso transformar
las expectativas culturales de ellos. Esta idea que las personas son agentes de
acción y no son esclavos de su cultura es algo que presento anticipadamente en
mis cursos de antropología cultural. Este cortometraje me permite reforzar este
concepto por muchas semanas en el semestre, que ayuda para la retención, proveyendo
un contexto cultural dentro del cual los estudiantes pueden conceptualizar esta
idea. En las discusiones que siguen, los estudiantes a menudo exploran formas
en las que su propia familia se adapta o
no se adapta a las normas y expectativas de su propia cultura. Los estudiantes
también pueden discutir sobre mecanismos culturales y sociales (es decir:
vergüenza, chismes, entre otros) así como mecanismos gubernamentales (por
ejemplo: leyes sobre la bigamia, apoyo para la niñez, el diseño de viviendas, entre
otros.) que trabajan para hacer cumplir ciertas normas de matrimonio y
La corta duración de la
película (20 minutos) es suficientemente larga para proporcionar suficiente
contexto cultural y profundidad. Sin embargo no ocupa todo el período de clase.
También hay disponible una versión de transmisión más corta (10 minutos).
This 10-minute film available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YItBnWz0vOU) documents the 2012 Aboriginal Women’s Natural and Cultural Resource Management (NCRM) conference held at the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve on Weilwan territory in New South Wales, Australia. This film can be used in introductory archaeology and environmental anthropology classes as it calls attention to how women from indigenous communities have important cultural knowledge about the significance of natural resources and their preservation. Coming together for a three-day conference offered an opportunity for these women to learn more about how they can use resources communally while giving anthropology students additional perspectives on the benefits of ensuring NCRM projects prioritize the voices of indigenous women and their communities. Their work underscores how any given location should be considered both a cultural and natural resource in need of conservation methods led by local communities who offer pertinent forms of expertise on conservation.
The idea that a place like the wetlands can be both a natural and cultural resource is also made vivid as they engaged with the land according to traditional notions of community. For example, the women were able to learn how sedge is harvested for weaving and participated in projects where even the most experienced weavers were surprised to learn new traditional techniques. The women also planted native species of sedge to preserve the wetlands for future generations and once again weave together the importance of indigenous knowledges, practices, and aspirations for the future. Cultural tours, planting, and harvesting natural resources like lomandra flax plant used for weaving and trees native to the riparian area became ways of doing and seeing cultural knowledge through community building. These activities reiterated why natural resources like the wetlands should be protected for future generations as well as the need for indigenous women to become more involved in efforts to get their lands returned.
This film additionally provides a concrete example of environmental justice and how indigenous communities are working together to combat forms of environmental racism, such as the inability to own their traditional lands. The politics of natural and cultural resource management are therefore highlighted as workshops, activities, and discussions at the conference also focused on sharing strategies toward the attainment of land titles to protect the cultural heritages inextricable with natural resources like the wetlands. Surrounded by land cultivated for agriculture, the Weilwan people have been able to establish their territory as a protected area through joint management relationships with national parks and the Australian federal government. This film enables students to learn that NCRM can be a political as well as creative process in which activism and artwork can work hand in hand to reaffirm the rightful relationships indigenous groups have with natural resources. In these multifaceted relationships, we also see how indigenous women should have a prioritized voice in the creation and implementation of conservation procedures.
only is the wetland a sanctuary for native plants and animals, its creation is
part of a dreaming story that once again demonstrates how fundamental a natural
resource can be to the identities and lives of local communities. By sharing
dreaming techniques at the conference, the women reaffirmed their
understandings of the spiritual, ecological, and communal values that are
inseparable from the wetlands. They also illustrate how applied scientific
knowledge about ecologies also requires sociocultural contextualization that
considers the deeper relationships local communities have with them. Cultural
activities were therefore enacted as a way to remind women of the knowledge and
practices that need to be passed along to future generations as well as
reiterate the importance of expanding their engagement in decision-making
processes from which they have been historically excluded.
Teaching Resource Contributed By: Megan Neal, University of California, Irvine
Photograph by Mario Patinho. Lukas avendaño. Muxhe, Muxe Contemporary performer.
A short film that I like to use in my introductory cultural anthropology courses to introduce units on gender is an innovative new documentary film entitled Muxes, commissioned by the Guardian in collaboration with The Filmmaker Fund. The film highlights the experiences of a third gender group unique to indigenous Zapotec communities in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The videography of the film is beautiful and the subject matter is portrayed respectfully and from multiple perspectives. As one participant states in the film: “It’s not being gay. It’s not being homosexual. It’s nothing more than being Muxe. Being Muxe is just being Muxe”. At 12 minutes, Muxe is short enough to be paired with vignettes of other third gender groups from around the world in a single class period.
Quick Tip: Fusion TV put together a beautiful website that I sometimes use in online classes to supplement the video.
The California Newsreel three part series Race the Power of an Illusion is, by many standards, among the best documentary films that teach the biological fallacy of race as well as the social construction of “race” in the US.
The film is available for purchase and is included in many college and university library film streaming services. The California Newsreel website provides some resources that can be adapted for use in college-level introductory anthropology classes.
Some of the highlights of these resources include: