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by Dan Nuxoll
January 22nd, 2008

Towards the middle of The Linguists, Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger’s documentary about two adventurous, globe trotting academics, the subjects wander into a small village deep in the heart of India and find that they have stumbled upon a huge celebration of some sort–apparently a wedding. The entire village is singing, chanting and celebrating with hundreds of women locking arms together and swaying about in unison as the men dance joyously around them. The villagers spot the academics and the film crew and immediately invite them all into the center of the celebration. The two professors gladly join in and the bemused villagers embrace their visitors, dancing with them for hours and bringing them drinks and food. Linguist David Harrison says later, “you should get out and dance with the people. That is the easiest way to learn a language quickly.”

Scenes such as these make The Linguists an easy film to enjoy. The two travellers featured in the film (Harrison and his partner Gregory Anderson) cheerfully venture from one remote location on the planet to another in a sometimes frenzied attempt to document the worlds most endangered languages before they disappear forever. They estimate that the world is losing languages at the shocking rate of one every couple of weeks, and it is obvious that the rapid modernization of some of the larger third-world and developing nations is causing this rate to accelerate exponentially. In villages and small towns in Siberia, Bolivia and India, indigenous populations are succumbing to political and economic pressures and abandoning their traditional customs and languages in order to fit in with society at large and overcome isolation and disenfranchisement.
The doc was shot over the course of more than five years and culled from hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage shot on five continents. There are at least a half dozen fantastically bizarre moments in the film, including a live guinea pig sacrifice, and as dreary as some of the communities they visit may be, the film maintains a light touch and a buoyant sense of adventure, even as the protagonists squirm their way out of a series of near-disasters.

Focusing more on the travels and ideas of the two main subjects, The Linguists presents a pleasantly objective look at the issues it addresses. Anderson and Harrison have a youthful energy about them, and though they clearly lament the accelerating rate of language loss, they just as certainly take great pleasure in their adventures and exploits. Even when things go wrong, you can tell they are excited to have overcome such strange and varied obstacles (at least after the fact), and there is a sparkle in their eyes as they recount their problems with gift giving in India or the various stomach ailments that befall them in South America.

My only real complaint with the film–and I would barely classify it as a complaint–is that the film fails to shed very much light on the real motivations of the two linguists. In the Q and A following the film the two of them were asked why they took such an interest in languages from such a young age, but the two both responded that they had no idea why they were so obsessed with exotic tongues and their preservation. Watching them travel through warlord-controlled areas to track down the last remaining speakers of ancient languages, it is easy to tell that they embark on these quests more for the sake of adventure than to correct some wrong in the world. I, for one, would have liked for the film to have addressed this element of their personalities more fully. But the film played quite well to a sold out audience, and as the clock crept past 1:15 AM audience members were still posing multi-part questions to the subjects and directors. The Linguists is a fun and fascinating journey, and it was clear that everyone at the late-night screening was appreciative for the opportunity to tag along.

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One Response to “Sundance Review: THE LINGUISTS”

  1. Alex says:

    Thanks for this insightful review. I agree that the film is characterized by a kind of disconnection, as evidenced by features like its failure to convey to viewers what deeper concerns and passions motivate the main “characters” to pursue their “adventure.” As someone who works in the field of linguistics, I find this kind of dissociation all too common. The inclusion of footage in which a guinea pig is slaughtered speaks of the same disconnect and is disturbing and unforgivable.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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