In the progression from one generation to the next, there is the danger of losing much of the culture that came before it. Customs fade, traditions die out. And, in the case of Marie Wilcox— the last fluent speaker of a Native American dialect—an entire language is on the verge of becoming extinct.
Director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee from Go Project Films captures Marie Wilcox’s efforts to archive her native Wukchumni language in this poetic short documentary created last year for the New York Times’s op-docs program. It’s a simple story—one that poetically and succinctly captures the importance of preserving the past in order to provide for the future. The tapestry that humans have created—all that we have built to represent who we are and where come from—is conveyed through language. Words and phrases are the reference material for an entire culture. Communication is the key to understanding.
Considering this is a documentary that’s about the recording of words and letters, it’s surprisingly emotional. For while Marie’s physical dictionary is the ostensible focus of the film, really this is a story about generations—about mothers and daughters. Language becomes a way to reconnect bonds between family members—a link that binds everyone together. Director Vaughan-Lee patiently captures this idea with a documentary style that is a confident blend of formal techniques (talking-head interviews) and “fly-on-the-wall” observational footage. He deftly interweaves Marie’s reciting of a Wukchumni legend throughout the narrative, giving the profile a poetic thruline that drives the story forward.
We are obviously huge fans of director Vaughan-Lee’s work. Last year we featured his lovely, lyrical short documentary, Isle De Jean Charles, which provided an intimate portrayal of a vanishing island deep in the heart of the Louisiana Bayou. If you are interested in seeing more of his natural nonfiction style, we encourage you to check out his latest film about a Flamenco guitarist in spain, Soleá.