Tongues of Heaven

60 mins  DV  color  2013  Mandarin/English/Truku/Hawaiian/Rukai/Tsou Kanakanavu  Chinese/English subs

“You already know the importance of saving a language. The main point is that you must start doing it. You know the reason, but not the motivation to save it. This is where I’m confused. You can also say I’m waiting for that something,” admits An-Chi Chen, one of the youth directors for Tongues of Heaven, a one-hour digital documentary. Set in Taiwan and Hawaiʻi, territories where languages of the Austronesian family are spoken, this experimental documentary focuses on the questions, desires and challenges of young Indigenous peoples to learn the languages of their forebears— languages that are endangered or facing extinction. Using digital video as the primary medium of expression, four young Indigenous women from divergent backgrounds together collaborate and exchange ideas to consider the impact of language on identity and culture. With 96% of the world’s population speaking only 4% of the world’s languages, what does it mean to speak your mother tongue in this age of language homogenization? To put it another way, what do you lose when you lose your native language? These are just some of the questions that these women, with camera in hand, ask themselves, their families and peers.

:: We are accepting donations for the companion web app ROOT TONGUE exploring issues of language endangerment and revival via dialogue and creative personal stories. Donations go toward maintenance, and your tax-deductible donation, however big or small, will go a long way to keeping the site active! Click here to make your tax-deductible donation. Thank you! ::

Native Spirit Taiwan Film Festival at Amis Music Festival, Dulan 2023 / Native Spirit Taiwan Film Festival, Tainan 2022 / Western Sydney U. Field Research and Cultural Exchange, Taiwan National Dong Hwa U. 2022 / Clarion Performing Arts Center, San Francisco Chinatown 2022 / School of Visual and Performing Arts, Brooklyn College CUNY 2022 / U. of California San Diego Department of Anthropology 2021 / Cal State East Bay Department of Communication 2020 / Simon Fraser U. Vancouver, Canada 2019 / U. of the Ryukyus Department of Global and Regional Studies, Okinawa 2019 / California State U. Monterey Bay Festival of Languages, Cultures and Ideas 2019 / U. of California Native American and Ethnic Studies 2017 / Arizona State U. American Indian Studies and Labriola National Indian Data Center, Tempe 2017 / SOMArts, San Francisco 2017 / Taipei Artist Village, Taiwan 2016 / Tokyo Cultural Typhoon Conference Exhibition, University of Arts, Japan 2016 / Visible Evidence XXII Mediatheque Toronto, Canada 2015 / Maysles Documentary Center NYC 2015 / Interdisciplinary Austronesian Connections Symposium, U. of Hawai’i at Mānoa 2015 / Academia Sinica Taipei 2014 / Hong Kong Pineapple Underground Film Festival 2014 / Taipei National U. of Arts, Taiwan 2014 / National Chengchi U., Taiwan 2014 / National Taiwan U. of Arts, Taiwan 2014 / National Chung Hsing U., Taiwan 2014 / National Dong Hwa U., Taiwan 2014 / Hualien Tribal College, Taiwan 2014 / National Tsing Hua U., Taiwan 2014 / Taipei Artist Village 2014 / Hualien Railroad Memory House, Taiwan 2014 / U. of Macau, China, 2014 / North American Taiwanese Women’s Association, San Jose Taiwanese American Center 2014 / U. of California at Santa Barbara Center for Taiwan Studies 2014 / U. of California at Santa Cruz 2014 / North American Taiwanese Women’s Association Annual Convention 2014 / Tulane U. 2014 / DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon 2014 / U. of Oregon at Eugene 2014 / The School of Oriental and African Studies at U. of London 2014 / U. of Hawai’i Academy for Creative Media 2013 / Hawai’i Pacific U. 2013 / U. of Hawai’i Department of Linguistics 2013 / Hawai’i International Film Festival 2013 / Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2013

Jason D. Mak Award for Social Justice Nominee, DisOrient Asian American Film Festival / Grand Jury Prize in Documentary Nominee, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival / Director’s Citation, Black Maria Film & Video Film Festival / Creative Capital Award

Anita Chang, Director of the Documentary Film “Tongues of Heaven” Talks with Host Jovelyn Richards, Cover to Cover Open Book, KPFA 94.1 Public Radio (10/29/14)
Tongues of Heaven (KP19) by Chieh-Ting Yeh, Ketagalan Media (7/18/14)
A Chat with Documentary Filmmaker Anita Chang by Ho Chie Tsai, (5/7/14)
Anita Chang’s ‘Tongues of Heaven’ Asks, What Is Lost When a Language Disappears? by Jenny Gill, Creative Capital’s The Lab (4/24/13)

Updates at

Clockwise l to r: Shin-Lan Yu with mother, Hauʻoli Waiau, An-Chi Chen, Kainoa Kaupu

CO-DIRECTORS  An-Chi Chen, Leivallyn Kainoa Kaupu, Monica Hauʻoli Waiau, Shin-Lan Yu
CAMERA  Anita Wen-Shin Chang, An-Chi Chen, Leivallyn Kainoa Kaupu, Steve Fujimura, Monica Hauʻoli Waiau, Shin-Lan Yu
SONG PERFORMERS  Chen family, Malia Nobrega
SOUND MIX  Gibbs Chapman
COLOR FINISHING  Angela Reginato
FISCAL SPONSOR  San Francisco Film Society
FUNDERS  Creative Capital, National Geographic All Roads Seed Grant

Through the lens of her camera, Anita Chang and her collaborators follow the extraordinary prehistoric expansion of the Austronesian-speaking peoples across the Pacific from Taiwan to Hawaiʻi, and in her journey she provides a sensitive portrait of the impending death or hoped-for rebirth of some of the languages that arose through this monumental 4,000 year old migration, one of the greatest in human history. Much has been written in the professional linguistics literature in recent years about language endangerment, but this film puts that message in powerful visual form, relating it to individual speakers on whom the future of an entire language or culture may depend. –Robert A. Blust, Linguist, University of Hawaiʻi

Yan-Fen Lan, 20 years old, is among the peers interviewed as someone who has just taken the path to revitalize Tsao Kanakanavu spoken by about 10 speakers.

Artist Statement
Co-directors An-Chi Chen and Shin-Lan Yu were among other young people I encountered while I was teaching film in the Department of Indigenous Languages and Communications at National Dong Hwa University, a public university located in eastern Taiwan. These students lamented their near or total inability to speak their mother tongue, their linguistic heritage being from one or more of the 16 distinct Indigenous languages, Minnan, Hakka or a combination thereof. In addition to the 16 Indigenous languages that correspond to the 16 officially recognized Indigenous groups, 10 Indigenous groups have yet to be recognized. Many students come from mixed heritages and are sometimes exposed to multiple languages. The students’ lament foregrounded my own, for I can only understand Minnan as I lost my ability to speak it at age 6 when I began learning English in the U.S.

With about 6,000 languages spoken in the world, and an estimated 2 disappearing every month, one may say to oneself, “So what? There are still thousands left.” Or one may be shocked at the rate of this loss. Even my immigrant parents who still speak their native language challenged me with the question: “What exactly do you lose when you lose your native language? Your soul?” Thus, the film would give voice to this very question: What do you lose when you lose your native language? In my mind, such a documentary project would focus on young Indigenous peoples’ perspectives since extinction of Taiwan’s Indigenous languages is more imminent given the lower numbers of speakers, compared to the number of other minority language speakers. The documentary would also necessarily be collaborative and comparative. My reasons were I wanted to experiment with creating a film that could convey different forms of expressivity and perspective through personal camerawork, and generally, I wanted to provide the opportunity for intensive one-on-one mentorship. A comparative approach was key, as Hawaiʻi is know worldwide for its language revitalization efforts.

The documentary team consists of a dynamic group of co-creators who have a love of moviemaking. Field producer Malia Nobrega comes to the production with years of experience as a Native Hawaiian educator, a technology and media specialist, and as an advocate of Indigenous rights in the areas of bioprospecting and traditional knowledge. The four young women collaborators are Shin-Lan Yu and An-Chi Chen from Taiwan, and Lei Kainoa Kaupu and Monica Hauʻoli Waiau from Hawaiʻi. The women shot much of the footage that was a result of workshops that I conducted teaching them the basic skills and techniques of camera, lighting, and sound recording. I presented them with exercises to consider the multiple relationships between vision and hearing in a moving image medium such as film/video. I wanted the collaborators to have an intimate experience first with image and sound before bringing dialogue into the exercises. During a culminating workshop, collaborators met in Hawaiʻi to share their footage, insights, and concerns related to the challenges of revitalizing their languages.




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