Our methodology began in the 1960's when Ben Levine, then a practicing Clinical Psychologist, began to use video feedback, the replaying of previously recorded video interviews to interviewees. He found this procedure could dramatically stimulate communication with his clients who were mentally handicapped teenagers and Vietnam era heroin addicts. The process evolved as it was adapted to address community health care issues, criminal justice, civil rights, and mediation for communities in crisis.
The approach evolved further as Levine produced two films about language and cultural survival: Si Je Comprends Bien - The Language Vote in Quebec (1980) 50 minutes, and Waking Up French - The Repressesion and Renaissance of the French in New England (2003) 82 minutes.
For the documentary film Waking Up French, Julia Schulz, a language program developer, joined Levine in advancing the process to work with communities where a heritage language was in decline and in danger of being lost. From their work in Waterville and Lewiston, Maine, Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and Lafayette, Louisiana, they helped communities understand the roots of language decline and create language learning and reclamation opportunities. Their work was inducted into the Franco-American Hall of Fame at the Maine State Legislature (2003) and awarded a Commendation from the Louisiana Legislature. It was also featured on National Public Radio.
On seeing Waking Up French, Allen Sockabasin (a writer, musician, and former Tribal Governor) and Sharon Tomah, Director of the Wabanaki Mental Health Association, asked Levine and Schulz to address language loss in their communities with a media, documentary film based, approach. This led to a collaboration with the Passamaquoddy Dictionary Project and linguist Robert Leavitt working with the team of native speakers David Francis and Margaret Apt. The National Science Foundation grant, Documenting Group Discourse (Language Keepers) followed from their collaboration.
The project is affiliated with Northeast Historic Film, Bucksport, Maine which provides management and long term archiving as well as technical, educational, and web support.
While language endangerment is a cross-cultural, global phenomenon, it is equally true that each community is different. The general approach described below is adaptable to the needs of specific communities.
We use films or specially produced videos to convene group discourse that can create a new space where people feel safe to discuss what for many is a painful or upsetting subject: the loss of their language and culture.
When documentary or narrative films are shown to a group whose culture is reflected in them, the films can elicit strong and spontaneous discussion in the heritage language even if it has not recently been used. The intentional selection and presentation of a specific "trigger" film is an important part of the launch of the process. From this, individuals come forth and informal groups recognize that yearning overcomes inhibition.
The group conversations are convened by a Facilitator, a speaker who has been sensitized to the group process in endangered language situations, community history, and local issues. He or she extends and deepens the discussion by helping participants to overcome obstacles such as using an English word and then shifting to English for the rest of the statement, which in turn prompts others to shift to English. Here the facilitator gently notes that it's all right to use a borrowed word and encourages the conversation to continue in the language. The facilitator also draws out shy people and offers his or her own associations based on knowledge of the participants and the topic, so that difficult subjects can be broached. The facilitator can also help move the discussion from initial story swapping to more thoughtful reflection and animated give and take.
We film in a non intrusive, experienced intuitive documentary hand-held camera style using small, high definition digital cameras with specially adapted wireless microphones. The audio quality is excellent. Typically, participants comment that: "I completely forgot they were filming."
Postproduction includes logging the conversations with advisors and selecting segments, transcribing and translating selected segments, digital time code referencing of subtitled clips, indexing, editing and authoring DVDs. Complete transcripts in Passamaquoddy and English are available as text documents.
The showing back of selections to the original group plus newcomers stimulates animated discussion, which often leads to a more eloquent, complete, and satisfying statement by the speakers. It can deepen discussion on those topics, and leads to new topics, This is called "Presentation Feedback." The second discussion is also filmed and can be added to the original to show the development and amplify feelings and ideas. This permits a type of "oral tradition" to evolve in that a critical and analytic distance and attitude emerge that guide the conversation to return to important cultural themes.
"It feels like a healing experience." Speakers clearly enjoy the experience especially when they haven't spoken in a group for a long time. They beam with renewed self-confidence and self-esteem. They often begin using language more in their immediate lives.
During the conversations, people get ideas about how to address obstacles to language learning and use and decide to act together. This can produce new language initiatives that are also filmed and shown back further reinforcing a momentum for renewed language use and visibility in the community.
The recorded conversations become a rich source for new dictionary entries, examples of usage by different speakers, eloquent speaking, cultural values, ecological information, historically important information, spiritual guidance.
Segments from Conversations are put on DVDs organized so as to address the interests of the community. They can be viewed with no subtitles or subtitles in English or in Passamaquoddy. A teacher's edition allows the student to use the On-Line Passamaquoddy Dictionary and open transcripts simultaneously while viewing the video as well as switching back and forth between Passamaquoddy and English subtitles.
The project materials are circulated within the community and played on tribal TV. They are used in language classes. Many people can understand but can't speak their language and these materials are now being adapted to a program to help these "fluent comprehenders" become speakers, an important development for increasing the speaker base and bridging the gap left in the breakdown in transmission.
Linguists and scholars doing research can apply to Northeast Historic Film for access to selected materials.
We are developing the technology to make the videos available as video clips linked to the Passamaquoddy on-line dictionary so that words can be searched for their contextual meaning, and as clusters of related subjects. We are working with teachers to develop the full educational potential of the recordings.