Watching language: San Francisco filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider look at immersion programs in 'Speaking in Tongues.' (Photo by Najib Joe Hakim)

'Tongues' Cracks the Language Barrier

Michael Fox January 13, 2009

If there is such a thing as good timing in the documentary world, and we daresay there is, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider are poised to be major beneficiaries.

The San Francisco couple’s forthcoming film, Speaking in Tongues, follows four diverse local public-school students enrolled in language-immersion programs. The goal of the curricula is not merely to turn out bilingual children who will thrive in the global economy, but to dissolve the suspicion and stigma that attaches to "the other."

"Bilingualism is a metaphor for what could be breaking down those barriers between our neighbors and us, whether it be around the corner or around the world," Schneider explains. "This is very much about how we understand and are understood by the rest of the world—how we engage with the rest of the world. We’re talking about transformation, personal, cultural and national."

"We’re putting out a vision of what could be," Jarmel elaborates, "because these kids are pioneers in a world we hope is coming. San Francisco is on the cutting edge because it’s made a public-policy statement that every public school kid has the opportunity to be bilingual."

Jarmel and Schneider (whose previous films include The Return of Sarah’s Daughters and Born in the U.S.A.) come to bilingualism from personal experience. Their children go to a language-immersion school, with the 13-year-old conversationally fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English while the eight-year-old speaks Cantonese and English and understands some Mandarin. (The couple makes a trip to Chinatown with the kids sound like a real hoot.)

Between their experience on previous films and their familiarity with San Francisco’s language-immersion program, the filmmakers didn’t find it particularly difficult to cast Speaking in Tongues. "You can see which kids have a story just in the way they are," Jarmel says nonchalantly. The tougher task was integrating personal arcs and big-picture themes into a fluid, emotionally compelling cut.

"It’s definitely been a challenge to figure out how to bring a very big question into a single story," Jarmel admits. "Is it a social-issue or a character-driven story?" Schneider, who’s widely viewed as one the Bay Area’s top documentary editors, evinces no such ambivalence. "I learned a long time ago you can do an ensemble cast as long as the issues you’re exploring are embedded in character stories."

The kids in Speaking in Tongues—an African American, Mexican American, Asian American and Caucasian—represent different facets of the complex bilingual issue, and the film invites the audience to root for each child in a different way. A different musical motif, with Jon Jang and Wayne Wallace providing Asian-fusion classical jazz and B. Quincy Griffin contributing contemporary hip-hop, has likewise been conceived for each character.

"What they collectively add up to is the core idea of the film, encouraging Americans to rethink our allegiance to English only," Jarmel explains. "Language is a doorway to understanding other cultures. In that way, language is kind of a metaphor for Americans opening their [minds] to other ways of thinking and being in the world. It’s very concrete—you learn a skill that can help you communicate—but it also does something else to your worldview. And we’re talking about both of those things [in the film]."

The filmmakers shot throughout the 2006-07 school year, and expect to wrap postproduction with a finished film by mid-February. They’re beginning to apply to festivals while waiting for news from PBSSpeaking in Tongues is an ITVS project—regarding an anticipated fall broadcast date.

Hence the documentary gods synchronizing their watches. We’re about to bid a hearty goodbye to the fellow who declared himself the Education President but was more like the class clown. The new guy is a law professor who writes books and told English-only advocates on the campaign trail last July, "Understand this: instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English, they’ll learn English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish."

"Certainly we’re in a more favorable climate than we would have been a year ago," Jarmel concurs. "Just a few years ago, this wasn’t on anyone’s plate. Nobody was connecting [job opportunities] with language skills. Colleges say recruiters are looking for multilingual skills. I think part of the reason the film has taken so long is we really had to make the case for people that the issues are related, that this is not just a sweet program where kids are enjoying their education. This is a model for transforming our society into a global partner."

To watch a clip from the film, go to Contact info for the filmmakers is also available at the site.

Notes From the Underground

Bob Wilkins, beloved host of KTVU’s Creature Features from 1971-78 who cheerfully partook in numerous reunion shows three decades later at Thrillville at the Parkway, died Jan. 7 at 76. A memorial will be held Jan. 24 at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland. . . . Man on Wire ended its SF run Jan. 8, exactly five months to the day it opened. James Marsh’s documentary and Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor showed the longest legs of any movie released here in 2008, independent or studio. . . . The Roxie Theater will be going dark for the week of Jan. 30-Feb. 5 to install new seats and a new sound system. . . . Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco received a DGA nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in the documentary category for The Judge and the General, which had its local premiere in the "2008 SFIFF." . . . Atom Egoyan has signed on to direct Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson in the erotic thriller Chloe. The screenplay by SF-born Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote the cult faves Secretary and Fur, was originally set in our dirty little town but will now unfold in Toronto.

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