Coincidentally, having mentioned the splendid film about endangered languages, 'In Language we Live' in yesterday's blog, now arrives through the post the latest film from the Danish company who made it, Final Cut. It is called 'The Importance of Being Mlabri'. The Mlabri are a small tribe of about 200 living in Northern Thailand. They figured briefly and memorably in the first film - memorable, from a linguistic point of view, for the way they use striking leisurely high-to-mid falling intonation patterns on the last syllable of their sentences. The effect gives the language an entrancing appeal, which I'd not heard in other languages - almost as if they are singing to each other, at times.
Now directors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Signe Byrge Sørensen have devoted a whole film to the Mlabri, who are desperately trying to preserve their way of life within a society where other groups, notably the Hmong (Outsiders, as they call them) are dominant. The film is an extraordinary portrayal of the community. It is told entirely in Mlabri, with English (or Danish) sub-titles. The people seemed totally unconscious of the camera, and it is as if we are part of their village. The film was motivated by the fact that the language is endangered, but languages are people, and what we see here is the threat posed to the tribe as a whole.
Language preservation depends on several factors. It is partly a matter of economics, and we see the difficulties the tribe has in finding jobs and making ends meet. It is partly a matter of marrying within the tribe, and we see the difficulties young men have in finding a wife, when there are so few single girls in their own community. They have to travel to other Mlabri villages to see if there is anyone there. It is also a matter of inter-generational transmission, and in a hugely moving sequence we see a group of Mlabri children leaving the village and going away to boarding school in the nearby city for the first time. We follow them there and see them in their classroom learning English. And we see them return to their village at the end of term, and sense the uncertainty of their (relatively uneducated) parents and elders as they try to come to terms with what is happening to their (newly educated) children. Will they retain their Mlabri language and identity? It would seem so. Throughout all the difficulties emerges clearly the spirit and sense of identity of the people, who in this film symbolize the plight of hundreds of communities round the world.
Anyone concerned about endangered languages should see this film. Beautifully shot and edited, it is one of very few attempts (so far) to tell an endangered language story in real detail. Final Cut Productions is based in Copenhagen: Forbindelsesvej 7, DK-2100 Copenhagen. Contact Signe Byrge Sørensen: firstname.lastname@example.org. I wish it well.