ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak) at CIFF

Film still from ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak), Screening at Cleveland International Film Festival. Image courtesy of Blurry Pictures.

Language rills like the always-moving water that flows through “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak),” a documentary film about the work of Cherokee activists, artists, and educators fighting to save the Cherokee language. “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” premiers at the Cleveland International Film Festival with one live screening only, on Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 7:30 pm at the Allen Theater (Q&A session to follow screening). 

Considered by its people to be the centerpiece of their identity, the Cherokee language is the first written language developed in the United States. Sequoyah, a Cherokee man who spoke both Cherokee and English, worked for over ten years of work to create a syllabary (not an alphabet) to represent the Cherokee language on paper. In 1821, his system was adopted by the Cherokee Nation and spread quickly in the Eastern United States. The country’s first bilingual newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, started in Tennessee in 1828.

The film sets this vibrant achievement of language creation and cultural establishment against the violent reality of history. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that led to the Trail of Tears, the brutal relocation of about 100,000 indigenous people living between Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida, that forced them west of the Mississippi River. More than 300 Indian Boarding Schools, administered by both churches and the federal government from 1860 through 1978 in 30 states, took more than 60,000 native children from their homes to educate and “civilize” them. Part of that process was the annihilation of native languages.

Now, less than 2,000 people speak Cherokee.

The film presents a number of large archival photos from these boarding schools by opening black folders with each photo inside. The sheer volume of image after image—here’s a classroom, here’s a school outing, here’s a blackboard behind a sea of faces, with row after row of small faces staring blankly at the viewer—bears witness to the number of native children silenced.

But the language bubbles up. Refusing to allow their stories, language, and culture to dissolve, the Tri-Council of Cherokee Tribes declared a State of Emergency for the Cherokee language in 2019. This gave added momentum to a movement to share the language with as many members of the Cherokee nation as possible, as fluent Cherokee speakers aged and the language was in danger of dying out. 

The film follows language activist and co-director Schon Duncan, educator Carolyn Swepston, and artist and producer Keli Gonzales as they steward the language and actively fight to save not only the Cherokee language, but the integral role it plays in binding their culture together. Intimate interviews with elders, verité footage of community gatherings, and casual but philosophical conversations in cars and kitchens bring the viewer into the living rooms and church social halls of members of the Cherokee Nation.

It’s as if one was sitting on the edge of the living room sofa, listening to grandparents talk. This intimacy with an endangered language and the culture it represents unwinds slowly through the mist-draped mountains of the Carolinas, over the silent mound of a field designated as the birthplace of the Cherokee people, and is often accompanied by the rushing of running water—rivers and creeks and tumbling, tumbling waterfalls.

Film Still from ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak), screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Image courtesy of Blurry Pictures.

Cinematographer and producer Jacob Koestler has ties to Cleveland: he taught at Cleveland Institute of Art, participated in the CAN Triennial, and with co-director Michael McDermit, has shown work at William Busta Projects. In “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” his natural landscapes are larger-than-life, mainly without people, and full of sound: birds, wind, running water, and the Cherokee language. Tight shots of people in interiors—cars, living rooms, porches—put the viewer as silent witness, one who overhears the love, respect, and determined strategy of saving what sometimes seems ineffable and impossible: a language that represents the deep roots of a culture.

ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)

Directors: ᎤᎶᎩᎳ / Schon Duncan & Michael McDermit
Producers: ᎨᎳᏗ / Keli Gonzales & Laura Heberton
Cinematographer: Jacob Koestler
Executive Producers: The McClellan-Sorell Family, Gill Holland, Thomas Sadoski, & Ben Speiser
Editor: Jacob Koestler
Original Score: Matt Miller
Color: Kyungchan Min
Cast: ᏂᎦᏫ / Carolyn Swepston (self); ᎨᎳᏗ / Keli Gonzales (self); ᎤᎶᎩᎳ / Schon Duncan (self)

Cleveland International Film Festival, Thursday, March 23, 2023 at 7:30 at the Allen Theater

Streaming April 2 – 9, 2023

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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