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Playing at the Mead: Language in We Still Live Here, Flames of God

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The protagonists of We Still Live Here and Flames of God, two of the selections in this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, live worlds apart, but they share a remarkably similar passion: to preserve their unique languages and codify them in dictionaries where none existed before.

For Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, the quest involves reviving her ancestors’ language, Wampanoag, one of many Algonquin tongues that have gone extinct despite their echoes across her corner of Cape Cod: Sippewisset, Hyannis, Narragansett. Director Anne Makepeace’s film We Still Live Here, which will be shown on Saturday, November 12, follows Baird as she studies linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and forges a friendship with the late Kenneth Hale, a scholar of indigenous languages. Makepeace will be in attendance at this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Working with archival documents, including phonetic translations of religious texts by 17th-century missionaries, Baird compiles a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary and teaches it to her daughter, who becomes the first native speaker in seven generations. Last year, Baird received a MacArthur Fellowship for her role in reclaiming a long-silent indigenous language.

Flames of God, the featured selection for the festival’s closing night on Sunday, November 13, profiles Macedonian songwriter and poet Muzafer Bislim. Bislim dreams of unifying the Romani language, which has devolved into many dialects competing to be “the most important one, the one the most used.” For decades, he gathered words from Roma he met while traveling around Europe as a performer and carefully recorded them in notebook after notebook, compiling a handwritten dictionary of some 25,000 words. Invited to participate in the International Biennial of Poets in Paris, Bislim reunites with long-lost friends and family and, with the help of his French poetry translator, seeks to sell his opus. His story, like Baird’s, speaks to the powerful pull of language as an emblem of identity and cultural bonds.

Click here to see the full Margaret Mead Film Festival line-up and to watch trailers, or visit mead2011.sched.org to buy tickets and make a personalized schedule.

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