April 08, 2013 | posted in Filmmakers
Half of the 7,000 languages in the world today will likely disappear by 2050, notes Benjamin Greené, director of “Survival Prayer.” The film focuses on the archipelago Haida Gwaii off the North Coast of British Columbia, consisting of about 150 islands. The inhabitants, the Haida, are a linguistically-distinct group.
The movie focuses on Naanii Mary Swanson, one of just three fluent speakers in her village. Greené says: “Two years later, there is just her and Chinni Claude Jones, who is over 90 years old.” In total, there are less than 40 remaining fluent speakers of the Haida language and they are all over 75.
According to Greené, Chinni Claude and Naanii Mary go to the elementary school during the week to help document the language and develop curriculums.
“All over the world, they have different languages, everyone has their own, and we do, too,” says Naanii Mary Swanson about the importance of the Haida language. “And we have to have ours back.”
The community is very respectful of Naanii Mary and so is Greené. “She is an Elder and she takes her community and culture very seriously,” he says.
He notes that MIT Linguist Ken Hale said, “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."
The filmmaker, who went to Oberlin College in Ohio, reports that his subject was supportive of what we were doing and he is “grateful for her generosity in sharing stories in her language,” he says. “Which is a gift.”
He first heard of the Haida life when a friend suggested he read a book called “The Golden Spruce” by John Vaillant. The story is about an act of ecoterrorism that took place on Haida Gwaii in the 1990s.
“I was inspired by Vaillant’s descriptions of the islands,” says Greené. Before he even finished the book, Greené did some initial research and sent letters to the village councils on Haida Gwaii requesting permissions to film.
“Survival Prayer” not only gives the audience a glimpse of the beautiful language and culture of the Haida people, but also the stunning landscape of this remote location.
--Anne M. DiTeodoro
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