Monday, April 28, 2008

IFF Boston Makes Me Good and Uncomfortable

I saw two documentaries at the International Film Festival this weekend. The first, The Linguists, is about guys who hunt down and document dying languages by interviewing their last remaining speakers. Although I had some difficulty with the organization--editing, I guess--the content was mesmerizing and I was thrown into that very delicate and wondrous field of questioning: what about our thinking can we learn from our words? What similarities are there, really, in human experience, if our languages are so different? Or are they not so different? Who decides the criteria for these questions?
At one point the linguists found out that a nearly extinct language they didn't know much about had a counting system of base 12...oh no, base 20...oh wait, BOTH base 12 and base 20. It was the most complicated counting system they'd encountered, and their visible glee was infectious. And also, I does this arise? Is it totally random, or does it have some origin in the natural world? What's the meaning of some groups using base 10 (that's us!), others using base 12? Or is there no meaning at all? I need to read more, obviously, since I imagine there are reams of pages already attacking these questions. It was exciting to be plunged for a few moments into the field. The Q&A included both the director and one of the linguists featured in the film, so we got some really interesting answers about the state of the research in addition to stories about the making of the film. I felt not quite smart enough to "get" what was happening, which is actually kind of a pleasurable experience for nerdy little me.
I also got very invested in a conversation I had with friends afterward, in which we struggled with the problem of white Euro/American scientists traveling to post-colonial communities to "preserve" culture. Despite the ostensible scientific intentions of the linguists themselves, the practice appears to skirt just on the edge of an "imperialist nostalgia" that very much disturbed my friend Katie. (Imperialist nostalgia, if I can butcher/borrow a definition, involves people mourning the passing or transformation of what they themselves have caused to be transformed. It's about the conquerors wishing they could still see the quaint little dance shows the natives used to do, before they all got killed, then rushing out to ask the native grandmas to please teach everyone those dances, the way they used to apologies to Maria Koundoura, in whose kick-ass class I learned the term.) So, how do we understand two American scientists hunting down languages that are going extinct due to colonialization, then simultaneously "giving" the recordings of the language back to the speakers (in forms they can technologically support) and also archiving the languages at major Western universities? It sounds totally awesome and heroic, and also, brings up these very sticky questions about how to non-destructively engage communities that have been involved in complex colonial relationships. None of that, really, was discussed in the film--that's why I like education and my friends!
The second film was called "Sex Positive," (don't try to get into the website, you'll be "Forbidden," which is a hilarious language coincidence). Sex Positive chronicled the sordid and very strange history of Richard Berkowitz, one of the pioneers of the safe sex movement. You can read more about the film and Berkowitz in an article by Jim Duncan here. What I'd like to address is actually a very strange moment that happened during the Q&A. As it turns out, the filmmakers are a ridiculously adorable, young heterosexual couple who got turned on to Berkowitz as a subject because the female partner has known him as a family friend her whole life. In fact, prior to the film the two of them knew little-to-nothing about the field of sex research, safe sex campaigns, the gay community circa 1979, and so on, and don't consider themselves AIDS or safe-sex activists. They originally wanted to make a film about Berkowitz being a former S&M hustler, like, uh, anybody would. They changed their tune a bit, and cranked out the movie in less than a year. There was a palpable tension to the questions, once viewers realized this. It seemed as though nearly all of us in the audience (and I include myself, as a sex educator and writer) had some background in the "field," and we expected poor Daryl Wein to be One Of Us. Maybe he is now, sort of, but it was clear by the total relief on his face when people started asking him about his next film (a narrative, and nothing whatsoever to do with sexual politics, safe sex, or AIDS) that he never intended to make his career be about this subject matter. I was reminded of how often people who engage in works that address these issues are turned into talking heads, mouthpieces, Sex Expert on what-have-you, even if their actual field of expertise is only overlapping, or neighboring. It's a very compelling reason for some, I expect, to steer clear of including explicit sex in their movies and books, to steer clear of having gay characters, to never once try and ask questions about gender. I admire people like Jeffrey Eugenides who can write Middlesex, and still, in general, be regarded as a great literary fiction writer, without getting pigeonholed into being Someone Who Writes About Sex and Gender. It's all so tricky, and makes me grateful that I get to write manuscripts, not marketing or promo material, where much of this categorization and labeling gets done.


  1. hi vanessa! i came to your blog via your cs profile. i live about 1.5hrs away from boston. i had no idea the iff was even going on! too bad today's the last day! :-(

  2. Hey! I just wanted to add that I don't doubt the scientific skill/goals of the linguists profiled in that movie, nor do I doubt the respectfulness of their intentions. I just think there's an inevitable tension there, which you capture well in this column, V, that deserved some sort of reflection in the movie and/or the question and answer period. Too much attention, though, can be crippling (at least for me). At some point a person just has to do the best he/she can with these concerns, make the choices that seem least fraught, and WORK. I always get mired in the mental stewing part.

  3. Rather than hear about the 'sticky question' the linguists pursuits bring up, I'd rather hear your answer to the questions. That's what makes a good blog more interesting than reporting, to me. I only say that because my bombastic praise in my previous comments was starting to make me look like a sycophant.