Keep Talking: Director/Producer Karen Lynn Weinberg on the Healing Power of Language

Keep Talking - Karen Lynn Weinberg

Karen Lynn Weinberg, director/producer of Kartemquin doc Keep Talking, discusses the origins of the project and the challenges of revitalizing an endangered language. ​

Keep Talking, the latest documentary from Kartemquin Films, is a sensitive and uplifting story of a group of Alaskan Native elders and educators striving to preserve the Kodiak Alutiiq language through community building and youth education. (You can find our review here.) 

Karen Lynn Weinberg, the director/producer of Keep Talking, spent five years immersed in the lives and language of the Alutiiq, capturing the curious mix of urgency and tranquility involved in their language revitalization efforts. I sat down for a phone interview with Weinberg to talk about how the project got started, and the importance of preserving language and culture.

How did you come across [the story of Alutiiq language revitalization], and what made you want to make a documentary about it?

This is a question I get asked all the time, because [Alaska] is remote, especially for a Chicagoan Jewish gal to wind up [laughs]. I was teaching film editing in Chicago and got sent to Kodiak, Alaska, to teach a week-long class in film editing. The entire class was made up of Kodiak Alutiiq people, who were looking to continue their efforts in preserving their endangered language and culture.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the pressure these people were under, trying to preserve their entire history with these last remaining elders. I was at the point in my career where I had done a lot of editing of documentaries, and I wanted to try my hand at directing, but I hadn’t found a story that felt important in a way that this did. I threw out a proposal, took it to their elders; they said, “okay, we grant her permission to come and film out first-ever attempt at a language immersion camp,” and we took it from there.

What was the process like of getting the elders’ approval to film the camp? Were they immediately onboard or did it take some time?

There was definitely deliberation; when I submitted the proposal, I had met one of the language counselors, Kari Sherod, and had a sense that they wanted to do something. So I just flew out a proposal to her. Many months later, I assumed it was a no go, but suddenly [I learned] she succeeded in getting it past the elders. She worked for a while to convince people that this was a worthwhile endeavor. Because, you know, Alaska has a ton of reality shows, like Ice Road Truckers, so Alaskans have become wary of camera crews.

Did you have to work hard to reassure them that you weren’t going to be exploitative, but celebratory [of Kodiak culture]?

Repeatedly! It was a process of winning trust and explaining why we were there, that we weren’t there to sensationalize, or do anything like that. It’s a different beast, and they really worked with us on that.

You filmed this over the course of five years; what kind of background or education did you do learning about the Alaskan Natives, and Alutiiq in particular?

It started off very much as a crash course, getting a couple of history books and learning as much as I could before our first shoot. I had one month to prep for our first shoot, so I [laughs] had a lot to do in that month. Pull together a crew of five people, get everybody to Alaska – it was very challenging.

But over the years, [I spoke with] a number of elders and scholars within the community, including [ethnographer] Dr. Alisha Drabek and Dr. April Laktonen Counceller, who is on the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council – all these built-in experts who leaders in their community. I read their dissertations, I wound up reading a bunch more books. Basically, in submitting a bunch of grant proposals to secure our finishing funds, I had to do this research, which wound up making me more qualified to tell this story. It had the bonus of getting us funded and making me more prepared!

One of the most fascinating elements of the doc is seeing the dynamic between the elders, the counselors and students, all of whom seem to participate in this cycle of learning. From an education standpoint, what was it like seeing that dynamic in the language immersion camp?

It was baffling to me, actually, because while I have done teaching, I’m mostly an editor. I only taught for a short time. But I’ve been fascinated by education, so seeing the complexities of this multi-generational learning circle – elders to teachers to kids – and the different ways that played out was fascinating. There was this tangible sense that whatever was happening, people were feeding off it. There was this strength and growth and pride, but also these sensitive moments and moments of upset. Just watching it, and not knowing anything about it was enough to make me want to know more and more.

There’s something unique about an endangered language where that language itself becomes a precious item. In fact, [language expert] Evan Gardner, who created one of the teaching techniques you see in the film, describes what he has observed as the ‘Golluming’ of a language (his reference is from The Hobbit). See, in communities like this, where there are only a few fluent Elders remaining, we have what experts have called a ‘linguistic emergency.’ At this point the stakes are higher because there are so few speakers left, so there can be this protective quality people get, in defense of the integrity of the language.

Coupled with all the pain and shame these Elders experienced, such as being punished in school just for speaking, the act of passing the language on and getting it “right” feels very urgent. Because it is.

I’m sure that’s compounded by how endangered the language is; like you say in the doc, fewer than 40 people speak Alutiiq fluently, and it’s split between Northern and Southern dialects. What is your feeling of how that feeling of desperation makes them want to preserve it not just as a museum piece, but as an active language spoken in the community?

I have been told by a number of teachers, but they want [Alutiiq] to be spoken by as many people as possible. The challenge is, how do you get new speakers? [Get them] to give the incredible time commitment learning a new language requires, especially when there’s no funding? There’s a lot of volunteer time that goes into this. So how do you hook people?

Candace Branson, who is currently running a preschool language nest in Kodiak Alaska, wants everyone to understand how it can be fun. That’s part of why she’s such an incredible teacher, same with Marya Halvorsen, who’s known by her Alutiiq name, “Playful”. These are very energetic, fun people who turn this language into ‘rides,’ they call them – they use these bits of language to do something fun and interactive with someone else. I think that’s a bit of the magic they’re working into their technique.

Right; I think you see that [sense of fun] through Sadie’s story. For me, she’s the heart of the film, seeing the way the language gives her purpose and meaning and has this personal significance for her. At what point did you zero in on her as a major focus of the film?

You know, it was tricky, because we did film quite a bit with a few other people, who had amazing, wonderful stories. As we got into the rough cut edit process, where we had multiple versions and feedback screenings, I realized I had way too many stories I realized I had way too many stories going on.

Meanwhile, Sadie’s story kept developing in a way that made it clear that the language was manifesting in a very visible, tangible way in her life. She grew more confident as she worked with the language, she is sweet and inspiring, and about halfway through filming I knew her story would be a great anchor for the film.

Also, the counselors are these vibrant personalities, especially Marya. What appealed to you about these counselors’ personalities, and what is their secret to engaging their students?

I think the number one thing is making it fun, but they also make it personal. The revelation that happens later in the film, about the connection between language revitalization and health, and healing, is one that they live in their daily lives.

By helping their students see the connection between culture, community and health, the teachers help them navigate some rocky waters. It’s as if they see themselves in their students, and since they aren’t that much older, they can still relate to the challenges faced by today’s teenagers. We see this play out as they interact with Sadie.

Another thing I appreciate was the balance you strike between the in-the-moment urgency of preserving this language and reminding us of the “historical trauma” the Alaskan Natives went through. How did you decide to balance those two elements.

That’s a good question. I really wanted it to be a film based in the present, and to keep it grounded in the challenges and rewards of a current language revitalization movement in action. There are other wonderful films on language endangerment – We Still Live Here by Anne Makepeace is a great film – but I hadn’t seen this kind of thing, where there’s a small community on the brink, and what that looks like, and why.

I wanted this to be a current picture, but of course you can’t get that picture without the history. So you start it off with the journey of going to camp, because who doesn’t like to go off to camp? I’m hoping to sort of trick the audience into coming along on this adventure, and then, as needed, as things arise, to understand the context of what you’re watching. I’m trying not to spoon-feed or overexplain – rather than do that, I allow this story to unfold and fill in gaps as needed.

In certain versions, we had too much history; we [originally started off with] a history of the camp, which started out as ecotourism. It had such an interesting history – [Dig Afognak] was actually an archaeological dig where the old homes of the Native ancestors were. That’ll be a DVD extra, but it didn’t belong in the greater film. It was too much information.

Bigfoot is a recurring motif in the film, from animated segments to stories from the elders. What purpose did Bigfoot serve in the overall structure of the movie? What did Bigfoot do for you?

Bigfoot (or the aula’aq [in Alutiiq]) was incredibly helpful. He came out of one of the stories told by Nick, a wonderful, lovely Elder who spent a lot of time with us. He had this incredible personal encounter with an aula’aq. His story was captivating, and the importance of story and culture in our worldview was weaving its way into the film as I learned more. And we also needed a way to address historical trauma; in a lot of ways historical trauma is the nemesis in the film. How do you depict something that is not a three-dimensional being? Bigfoot helped me out in a number of metaphorical ways.

I do have one last question: in the five years you spent filming, did you get an Alutiiq name?

I didn’t, but I really do want one someday. [laughs] I would take anything, but you know, maybe that’ll happen down the road.

Keep Talking premieres in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 5th at 8:15 pm, followed by a Q&A with director Karen Lynn Weinberg, cinematographer Nara Garber and co-producer Rachel Rozycki; moderated by Dr. Dorene Wiese, CEO of the American Indian Association of Illinois.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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