INTERVIEW The art of the documentary
The Tech talks with director Anne Makepeace about We Still Live Here
We Still Live Here
Part of the PBS series Independent Lens
Directed and produced by Anne Makepeace
Anne Makepeace, from Lakeville, Connecticut, has been making films for almost 30 years. Her most recent film, We Still Live Here, had its broadcast premiere on the Independent Lens series of PBS and also screened at MIT on Nov. 17. The film is about a movement to revive the Native American language of Wampanoag. It centers on Jessie Little Doe Baird, who spearheaded the movement and whose daughter is the first native speaker in over a century.
The Tech: What motivates you to make documentaries?
Anne Makepeace: I am primarily a storyteller, and a film is a way to tell stories that matter. I make documentaries because, although the research is intense, I love discovering and learning about whole new worlds. My documentaries usually have a cross-cultural component; for example, Rain in a Dry Land is about two Somali Bantu refugee families that came to America. Ultimately, my aim is to make something visual that will affect people in the heart and motivate them to help.
TT: How did you first meet Jessie Little Doe Baird?
AM: I first met Jessie in the spring of 2006, when I was commissioned to work on part of a TV series about Native American history. My work was focused on the Wampanoags, and that’s how I began spending time with the Wampanoag community and how I found out about Jessie’s endeavors to revive their language. When my work on the other film ended, I talked to Jessie about making a documentary, about the language coming back because I thought it was an incredible story which needed to be told. Whereas I had been working on the sad tale of the exploitation and decline of the Wampanoags, I thought this could be an opportunity to focus on the positive and talk about their exciting and hopeful future.
TT: What was Jessie’s initial reaction to your idea of making a documentary?
AM: Jessie was enthusiastic, but cautiously so. The first thing she said was, “It can’t be about me.” She wanted it to be made perfectly clear that this story is not about any particular individual, but that it is about the Wampanoag community as a whole. I was only able to start work on the project once I had given a presentation to the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project Committee and been granted their approval.
TT: What were some of the greatest difficulties you encountered in the process of making this documentary?
AM: One of the most obvious difficulties was: how do you visualize a story about a language? On the other hand, another great difficulty was that, with modern digital recording methods, you just shoot and shoot and shoot, and so I ended up with 100 hours of footage, which I had to cut down to the exact 56 minutes and 40 seconds that PBS needs for an hour-long documentary feature.
TT: Why did you decide to use animation in the film?
AM: It is often a challenge to make a film about pre-photography eras, since there are not many visual records for us to use. Typical methods of getting around this are incorporating footage of, for example, a hand writing script or feet walking through snow. Fortunately, I saw some animation by Ruth Lingford and I thought it would be perfect for our purposes. It took me a year before she was available to work with us, but we were finally able to hire her to create the animations that you can see in the documentary. I find Ruth’s stark and expressionistic style hauntingly beautiful, and think the animations complement the narrative perfectly.
TT: What do you hope to achieve with this film?
AM: We Still Live Here has always been a story about the language. Many screenings of it were scheduled for November, and its premiere on PBS was timed to be broadcast exactly one week before Thanksgiving, as a reminder that we should acknowledge the Wampanoags for helping the earliest American settlers survive here. However, the Wampanoag history mentioned in this film is supplementary to the main story, and was included primarily to explain why the language disappeared. Learning about the revival of the Wampanoag language, and that something like this is even possible, was a real eye-opener for me, and I hope that it will be so for others too. I hope this film inspires other Native American peoples to continue working to revive their languages. For that reason, Makepeace Productions is partnering with a Cambridge organization called Cultural Survival and we just launched http://OurMotherTongues.org earlier this week. The project aims to create awareness about the need to revitalize Native American languages, and is currently focused on twelve languages, including Euchee, which has only five remaining octogenarian fluent speakers.
TT: Did you learn any Wampanoag in the process of making the documentary?
AM: Not really, I only picked up a few words here and there. Those in the Wampanoag community do not want others to learn their language until they themselves know it and have built up a strong base of fluent speakers. Additionally, it is a very complex language and I would find it very difficult to learn. For example, a single word can contain the meaning of an entire sentence!
To find out more about We Still Live Here, visit http://www.makepeaceproductions.com/wampfilm.html. PBS is also streaming We Still Live Here for free through Thanksgiving day at http://video.pbs.org/video/2168433568.