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About

The Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival celebrates cultural and linguistic diversity by showcasing films and filmmakers from around the world over four days of free screenings in Washington, D.C.

Since 2016, the annual festival has opened on February 21, International Mother Language Day. In 2019, the Mother Tongue Film Festival will be featured as a major event of the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Languages.

Our Mission

Through digital storytelling, the festival amplifies the work of diverse practitioners who explore the power of language to connect the past, present, and future.

Feature Films

Short Films

Special Event

Last Whispers

Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree

Sunday, February 24 at 6 pm
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center

Last Whispers is an audiovisual installation and a virtual reality experience—an immersive oratorio—dedicated to the extinction of languages.

Learn more

Venue Map


Partners

The Mother Tongue Film Festival is a collaboration between Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

National Museum of the American Indian logo
National Museum of the American Indian logo
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage logo

Funding support for the Mother Tongue Film Festival has been provided by the three Recovering Voices partners across the Smithsonian Institution: National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of Natural History, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Additional support provided by New York University/Stonewall 50, the Embassy of Australia to the United States, the Embassy of Canada to the United States, the Bhutan Foundation, MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, Eaton Workshop DC, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Mexican Cultural Institute, and the Georgetown University Department of Anthropology. This program has also received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center; Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center; Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center; Smithsonian Year of Music; Freer Gallery of Art; and Q?rius, The Coralyn W. Whitney Science Education Center.

the Embassy of Canada to the United States logo
the Bhutan Foundation logo
MoMA's Doc Fortnight logo
Georgetown University Department of Anthropology logo
Asian Pacific American logo
Smithsonian Year of Music logo
Freer Gallery of Art logo
Mexican Cultural Institute logo
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Sgaawaay K’uuna
Edge of the Knife

Thursday, February 21 at 7 pm
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian

In the first feature-length Haida film, Edge of the Knife tells a story of pride, tragedy, and penance.

Directors

Gwaai Edenshaw (Haida)
Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot'in)

Country

Canada

Language

Haida

Year

2018

Runtime

100 min.

Category

Fiction

Edge of the Knife draws its name from a Haida saying: “the world is as sharp as a knife,” reminding us that as we walk along, we have to be careful not to fall off one side or the other. Set in the nineteenth century against the backdrop of the rain forest and storm-ravaged Pacific coast of Haida Gwaii, the film is an adaptation of one of Haida’s most popular stories, sustained over the years through song and performance.

After tragedy strikes, young Adiits’ii becomes Gaagiixiid/Gaagiid, the Haida Wildman. Stranded, he fights to survive while his humanity gives way to a more bestial state. Meanwhile, the community struggles with conflicting emotions upon returning to the site where Adiits’ii was last seen. Both a timeless story and a contemporary allegory for the Haida Nation, the film was envisioned as a way to support Haida language, a critically endangered language spoken fluently by fewer than twenty people, and promote Haida culture by bringing an ancient story into a new space through film.

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Colours of the Alphabet

Friday, February 22 at 11 am
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery

An inspiring and bittersweet documentary film about language and childhood in Zambia.

Director

Alastair Cole

Countries

United Kingdom, New Zealand, Zambia

Languages

Soli, Nyanja, Bemba, English

Year

2016

Runtime

60 min.

Category

Documentary

Must the future be in English? Steward, Elizabeth, and M’barak are first-time students in rural Zambia struggling to make sense of an educational system in a language not their own. This documentary offers an intimate, moving, and often humorous view into a global phenomenon, from the unique perspective of the children involved.

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Leitis in Waiting

Friday, February 22 at 7 pm
Abramson Family Auditorium, NYU Washington, DC

The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the most socially conservative and deeply religious nations in the world, but it is also home to a visible community of talented and creative leitis, or transgender women.


Directors

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu
Dean Hamer
Joe Wilson

Country

Tonga

Languages

English, Tongan

Year

2017

Runtime

72 min.

Category

Documentary

The island kingdom of Tonga is home to a vibrant and creative community of native transgender women known locally as leitis, who hold essential roles in Tongan society. Tonga is the only South Pacific island to never have been colonized, but a rise in American-financed evangelicals threatens to resurrect colonial-era laws that would criminalize the leitis’ lives. Over the course of an eventful year, Leitis in Waiting follows Joey, a devout Catholic of noble descent, as she organizes an exuberant beauty pageant, mentors a young contestant rejected by her family, and garners the support of a royal princess. With unexpected humor and extraordinary access to the kingdom’s royal and religious leaders, this emotional journey reveals what it means to be different in a society ruled by tradition, and what it takes to be accepted without forsaking who you are.

This screening is free, but please register online in advance.

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ཤུལ་ལས་བདག་འཛིན་འབད་མི
The Next Guardian

Saturday, February 23 at 6:30 pm
Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History

The contrasting dreams of two generations clash within the microcosm of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Bhutan, when Gyembo—an ordinary teen—is chosen as the next guardian of the family monastery.


Directors

Dorottya Zurbó
Arun Bhattarai

Country

Hungary/Bhutan

Language

Dzongkha

Year

2017

Runtime

74 min.

Category

Documentary

In a remote village in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, sixteen-year-old Gyembo and his sister Tashi, age fifteen, aimlessly roam while their father meticulously polishes the ancient relics inside the altar of their private monastery. This family has been taking care of the monastery from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Unlike their father, whose life revolves around the monastery, Gyembo and Tashi have other desires. Gyembo wants to become a soccer player, and he is the only confidante for Tashi, who identifies herself as transgender. Following tradition, their father wants Gyembo to carry on the family heritage. He believes that the only way for Gyembo to accumulate good karma is to leave school and dedicate his life to religion and become the next guardian.

This screening is free ticketed events. Reserve your tickets online.

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Tiempo de Lluvia
In Times of Rain

Saturday, February 23 at 3 pm
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian

A traditional Mixtec healer grapples with the imminent departure of her grandson to Mexico City, in a story of cultural continuity and loss.


Director

Itandehui Jansen

Country

Mexico

Languages

Mixtec, Spanish

Year

2018

Runtime

90 min.

Category

Fiction

Tiempo de Lluvia (In Times of Rain) tells the story of a family caught between the rural and the urban. Adele migrates from her rural village to Mexico City to find work, leaving her infant son José with her mother, Soledad. After years apart, Soledad receives word that Adele is getting married and wants José to join her in the city. Soledad is fearful of José leaving his way of life. In Times of Rain is an intimate family drama rooted in love of culture, land, and family and the heartbreak of uncertainty in the face of economic migration.

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Sameblod
Sami Blood

Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm
Eaton Workshop, 1201 K St. NW

Elle Marja is a reindeer-breeding Sami girl. Exposed to the racism of the 1930s and race biology examinations at her boarding school, she starts dreaming of another life.


Director

Amanda Kernell

Country

Sápmi (Sweden/Norway)

Languages

Swedish, Åarjelsaemien gïele (South Sami)

Year

2016

Runtime

110 min.

Category

Fiction

During the 1930s in Sweden, Sami children were systematically removed from their parents—a practice common in Scandinavia at the time. Reindeer-herding teen Elle Marja is one of these children, sent to a boarding school where indigenous students are taught Swedish language and customs, and made “acceptable” to white society. During her stay, Elle Marja is torn between assimilation and her burgeoning sense of self.

This even has limited seating. Register for free tickets online.

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Tǫǫ Oozhrii Zhit Tsyaa Tsal Dhidii
Boy in the Moon

Thursday, February 21 at 7 pm
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian


Boy in the Moon
Director

Sam Osborn

Country

Canada

Language

Dinju Zhuh K’yuu (Gwich’in)

Year

2018

Runtime

6 min.

Category

Animation

In the midst of famine, an Athabaskan community must trust a small child to provide the medicine they need to survive. Originally recorded on wax cylinder by linguist Edward Sapir as told by John Fredson, this traditional story has been faithfully retold as part of the Language Keepers series, a project that strives to harness the power of language to highlight culturally unique stories with revitalization.

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My Heart Speaks Sauk

Friday, February 22 at 11 am
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Country

United States

Language

Sauk

Year

2016

Runtime

1 min.

Category

Poetry

Students in Shawnee High School Sauk 1 class present a poem they wrote that expresses the meaning of Sauk in their lives.

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The Boarding School Experience

Friday, February 22 at 11 am
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Country

United States

Language

Sauk

Year

2016

Runtime

5 min.

Category

Documentary

What if the only way to take back one’s language is to use the same tactics used in boarding schools to take one’s language away? Students in Shawnee High School Sauk 2 class explore this idea.

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To Wake Up the Nakota Language

Friday, February 22 at 11 am
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Director

Louise BigEagle

Country

Canada

Language

Nakota, English

Year

2017

Runtime

6 min.

Category

Documentary

As one of the last fluent Nakota speakers, Armand McArthur of Pheasant Rump First Nation, Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan, has dedicated himself to the revitalization of his language. In this documentary short, Armand shares his knowledge of the Nakota language stating, “When you don’t know your language or your culture, you don’t know who you are.”

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Dizhsa Nabani: Gal Rxal Lo Dich
Living Language: Language Access

Friday, February 22 at 11 am
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Directors

Moisés García Guzmán
Brook Lillehaugen

Country

Mexico

Language

Zapotec, Spanish

Year

2018

Runtime

5 min.

Category

Education

The Dizhsa Nabani documentary web series explores the relationship between Zapotec identity, language, and daily life. In this episode, municipal president Eleazar López Martínez and education officer Adrián Morales Garciá discuss efforts being made to incorporate the Zapotec language into formal education, inspired by projects that address the exclusion of Zapotec language from daily life and public space.

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Blackbird

Friday, February 22 at 2 pm
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Director

Amie Batalibasi

Country

Australia

Language

Solomon Islands Pijin, English

Year

2015

Runtime

13 min.

Category

Historical Fiction

Kidnapped from their home in the Solomon Islands, siblings Rosa and Kiko struggle to survive as they are forced to work on a sugarcane plantation in Queensland, Australia, in the late 1800s. In their new surroundings, Rosa works to ensure her younger brother Kiko follows the new rules that govern their lives. The result of community collaboration, this short film is a moving portrait of survival during a time of oppression and culture loss for the Pacific Islanders caught up in the blackbirding trade of the nineteenth century.

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Imfura

Friday, February 22 at 2 pm
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Director

Samuel Ishimwe

Country

Rwanda, Switzerland

Language

Kinyarwanda

Year

2017

Runtime

36 min.

Category

Documentary

Young Gisa travels to the village of Nkora, native to his mother who disappeared during the Rwandan genocide. He finds himself at the center of a family conflict over the fate of the house his mother built. Caught between the contradictions of a changing society, Gisa, who is almost the same age as the new Rwanda, seeks to rediscover his share of the collective memory of a past that belongs to him but is also so far away.

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Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes)

Friday, February 22 at 2 pm
Meyer Auditorium, Freer|Sackler Gallery


Director

Amanda Strong

Country

Canada

Languages

English, Anishinaabe

Year

2018

Runtime

19 min.

Category

Animation

Carrying out the traditions of their Anishinaabe forbearers, young Biidaaban harvests sap from sugar maples in urban Ontario neighborhoods. Accompanied by Ghost Wolf, Ghost Caribou, and shape-shifter Sabe, Biidaaban works to transcend the barriers placed by non-Anishinaabe settlers in their people’s traditional lands. In doing so, they raises issues about who owns the trees and land.

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Tama

Friday, February 22 at 7 pm
Abramson Family Auditorium, NYU Washington, DC


Directors

Jared Flitcroft
Jack O'Donnell

Country

New Zealand

Languages

English, ASL

Year

2017

Runtime

9 min.

Category

Drama

Tama, a young Māori boy who is deaf, wants to perform the ceremonial haka dance despite his brother and father’s admonishment. On a near-fatal car trip to visit his mother’s grave, Tama confronts his father and begins the process of intergenerational healing and cultural reclamation. This film is the result of a collaboration between between deaf and hearing filmmakers.

This screening is free, but please register online in advance.

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Koriva

Friday, February 22 at 7 pm
Abramson Family Auditorium, NYU Washington, DC


Director

Euralia Paine

Country

Papua New Guinea

Languages

Tok Pisin, Motu

Year

2017

Runtime

6 min.

Category

Drama

Visiting her relatives in Vabukori Village from Papua New Guinea’s capital city of Port Moresby, Koriva wants to wear her older cousin’s earrings and learn traditional dance. Her parents forbid her to do so, arguing that these traditions have no place in modern urban life. Koriva persists and shows them that one can be modern and value one’s traditions.

This screening is free, but please register online in advance.

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Dizhsa Nabani: Gal Ria’t Chuculat
Living Language: Grinding Chocolate

Saturday, February 23 at 11 am
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian


Directors

Moisés García Guzmán
Brook Lillehaugen

Country

Mexico

Languages

Zapotec, Spanish

Year

2018

Runtime

5 min.

Category

Education

The Dizhsa Nabani documentary web series explores the relationship between Zapotec identity, language, and daily life. Despite having not used her metate to grind chuculat for forty-one years, Angelica Guzmán Martinez can recall every step of this Zapotec process of chocolate-making as if it were yesterday.

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The Girl Who Talks to the Moon

Saturday, February 23 at 11 am
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian


Director

Neil Grahn

Country

Canada

Languages

Haida, English

Year

2018

Runtime

5 min.

Category

Animation

Wanting a new toy, Harmony learns how to make a kite from X̲uuya the Raven.

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Maisa: The Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan

Saturday, February 23 at 11 am
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian


Director

Michael Q. Ceballos

Country

United States (Guam)

Language

Chamorro

Year

2015

Runtime

35 min.

Category

Animation

With her home threatened by a sea creature from the Mariana Trench, young Maisa must find the courage to lead the women of Guåhan (Guam) into battle and stop the creature from devouring her island home. This first animated film to feature the Chamorro language, this film is the result of collaboration between the filmmakers, students, local actors, and language experts in Guam.

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Dizhsa Nabani: Gue’ Bac
Living Language: Tlacolula Market

Saturday, February 23 at 3 pm
Rasmuson Theater, National Museum of the American Indian


Directors

Moisés García Guzmán
Brook Lillehaugen

Country

Mexico

Language

Zapotec, Spanish

Year

2018

Runtime

4 min.

Category

Education

The Dizhsa Nabani documentary web series explores the relationship between Zapotec identity, language, and daily life. In this short, Angelica Guzmán Martínez saunters through the municipal market in Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oaxaca, showing us what she sells, how she barters, and how it’s related to her identity as a zunni.

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“Goaskinviellja”

Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm
Eaton Workshop, 1201 K St. NW


Director

Ernesto Calderón Dondero

Country

Chile

Language

Sami

Year

2018

Runtime

5 min.

Category

Music Video

Finnish duo Vildá is formed by Hildá Länsman (voice, percussion) and Viivi Maria Saarenkylä (accordion). While touring in Chile, they give an improvised live performance of the song “Goaskinviellja,” by Mari Boine Persen, a Sami singer from Norway, on a rooftop of the port of Valparaíso.

This even has limited seating. Register for free tickets online.

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Last Whispers

Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree

Sunday, February 24 at 6 pm
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Last Whispers is an audiovisual installation and a virtual reality experience—an immersive oratorio—dedicated to the extinction of languages.

Director

Lena Herzog
Sound design and compositions by Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini

Country

United States

Languages

Ahom, Ainu, Ayoreo, Bathari, Central Balsas Nahuatal, Chamacoco (Ishir Ibitoso), Dalabon, Duoxu, Enxlet Norte, Great Andamanese, Ikaan, Ingrian, Ixcatec, Ju|'hoan, Kotiria (Wanano), Koyukon, Laklãnõ Xokleng, Light Warlpiri, Los Capomos Mayo,Mani Manx, Mbya Guarani, N|ng, Nafsan (South Efate), Nivkh, Olekha, Ongota, Paunaka, Pite Saami, Qaqet, Sadu, Selk'nam (Ona), Selkup, Sumtu (Sone Tu), Surel, Tehuelche, Trung (Dulong), Warlpiri, Yanesha, Yauyos Quechua, Yoloxóchitl Mixtec

Year

2016

Runtime

46 min. (VR: 7 min.)

Category

Video and Sound Installation

In Lena Herzog’s oratorio, image and sound are poetically linked through 3D animation, drone video footage, and still images in black and white. Composed of historical linguistic recordings punctuated by the sound of collapsing stars, Last Whispers is a chorus of extinct and endangered languages, both spoken and sung. Following the oratorio, visitors can experience a short virtual reality projection.

This U.S. premiere is pesented in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Millennium Stage program series in the Terrace Theater. Free general admission tickets—up to two per person—will be distributed in the States Gallery beginning at 5 p.m.

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