To call Sam Green’s Esperanto documentary The Universal Language a film about a “failed experiment” would itself be en epic fail. It’s a film about hope, dreams, and a visionary in search of a better world. It’s a paean to a 19th- and 20th-century mass movement that may seem as odd and foolish in retrospect as it was vital and necessary in its time. It’s a love-letter to optimists, written in the strangely pragmatic language of Esperantists. It was developed in conjunction with a few other chapters of Sam Green’s vivid and engaging live-cinema performance Utopia in Four Movements, which premiered at Sundance in 2010 and has now played all over the world. Green has added a new chapter to his work on utopian thinkers, with the debut of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art-commissioned Yo La Tengo-accompanied The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller May 1 during the San Francisco International Film Festival. We spoke with Green, whose Universal Language film is still traveling the festival circuit, last week. (Join us April 26 as we celebrate Sam Green and other Fandor filmmakers in the San Francisco International Film Festival with a cocktail party at Public Works, SF.)
Keyframe: It’s really been a pleasure to watch your filmmaking, thinking, art and presentation evolve and grow over the years, and to see you emerge from the pack of documentary filmmakers to become such a stylized (I hate to use this word) ‘auteur.’ Was there an ‘aha’ moment for you in shifting to live presentation? With live music? (And I ask, because I saw elements of The Universal Language first as a live performance, in Utopia in Four Movements, workshopped at the Exploratorium in SF before debuting at Sundance, where I saw it again…!)
Sam Green: An aha moment? Actually there were a couple. One came when a guy named David Dorfman got in touch with me a couple of years ago. I didn’t know it at the time, but he’s a pretty well-known choreographer. He said that he wanted to do a dance piece on the Weather Underground and wanted to talk about my film. I was a bit dismissive in my thoughts: ‘A dance piece on the Weather Underground? What a crazy idea!’ I had really struggled w/ that film to get all of the facts straight and to make it as clear as humanly possible. I felt a real historical responsibility. How could you do any of that with dance??? What about all the complex ideas that would need to be communicated? So needless to say, I didn’t have much hope for the piece. But when I saw it later at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, I was actually blown away (no pun intended). It was fantastic! There weren’t any facts or figures, but it was still very powerful and deeply moving. Through light and movement and gesture and mood, David had been able to say a helluva lot. And it got me thinking about how different forms create different expectations with audiences. So when you see a documentary film on TV or go to see a doc in a theater, you expect a certain amount of linearity and clarity. That’s what we’ve come to associate with a documentary film. When you go to see a dance piece, you have a very different set of expectations. You expect a dance piece to speak to you in a much more abstract and poetic language. So seeing David Dorfman’s Underground was a pivotal moment for me. I became curious about different forms and the broader ways one can communicate with an audience. Another aha moment was seeing the live version of Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain. I loved that film and the ‘liveness’ was a huge part of the movie’s magic.
Keyframe: The music and soundtrack—between the Quavers and Dave Cerf’s sounds—really convey an ‘elegiac’ tone, as I know others have commented. Can you talk about your musical collaborators and how you come up with sound ideas to contrast and support your visual and narrative ideas?
When you see a documentary film on TV or go to see a doc in a theater, you expect a certain amount of linearity and clarity. That’s what we’ve come to associate with a documentary film. When you go to see a dance piece, you have a very different set of expectations. You expect a dance piece to speak to you in a much more abstract and poetic language.
Green: I’m a huge fan of the Quavers and Todd Griffin’s music. With Esperanto, there’s something wonderful and inspiring about the language and the movement around it. There’s also something that strikes me as quite melancholy. It might be that because I’m Jewish I’m predestined to respond to certain emotional chords like this one. In any event, I worked with Todd and Dave Cerf for the score to The Universal Language. Todd ended up doing most of the tracks. By now we know each other well and have developed a very good and satisfying collaboration; we go back and forth a bunch of times on each track. Sometimes I drive him a little crazy. But Todd is very good at understanding what I mean when I say something nutty sounding like ‘Can you make that track a little bit more ‘smiley’?’
Keyframe: Esperanto, as a subject, offers you so many opportunities to reflect on the century past’s idealists and where the urge to transform large swaths of the public to a notion/religion/ideology came from. Can you offer a short primer for readers of this Q&A on Zamenhof’s original impulse and where it came from? And please remind us of the forces who literally killed human beings over their desire to speak Esperanto together. Those were startling facts.
Ludwig Zamenhof grew up in the town of Bialystok, Poland, where there were four major ethnicities: Jews, Russians, Germans, and Poles. They all spoke different languages, and they all hated each other. There were even terrible pogroms. As a young man, Zamenhof had this inspiration that if people could speak a common language, they would see each other more as people—that this would help us to overcome war and racism. It was a wonderful vision.
Green: So Ludwig Zamenhof grew up in the town of Bialystok, Poland (incidentally, that’s where Dziga Vertov was from, and Alan Berliner‘s family as well, but that’s a different story). During Zamenhof’s time, there were four major ethnicities in Bialystok: Jews, Russians, Germans and Poles. They all spoke different languages, and they all hated each other. There were even terrible pogroms where lots of people were killed. So it was a very bad climate. And as a young man, Zamenhof had this inspiration that if people could speak a common language, they would see each other more as people—that this would help us to overcome war and racism. It was a wonderful vision. He spent many years putting together the language and actually published a book laying out the grammar and vocabulary in 1887. The word Esperanto fittingly means ‘one who hopes.’ With Espernato it was kind of a ‘right place, right time’ scenario. The early 20th century was a time when people believed in the power of grand social experiments to transform the world. Many of these blossomed during that time: communism, mass production, the League of Nations. So Esperanto fit into that. And during the early part of the 20th century, there was a thriving world-wide movement of people who spoke the language and believed that it would become a ‘second language’ for the world.
There still is a world-wide movement of people who speak the language today. But their hopes and expectations for Esperanto are more nuanced and perhaps tempered.
Keyframe: It truly is moving to see such a wide variety of human faces—Japanese, Swedish, a New Caledonian, Israeli, Finn (the list goes on)—seeking true understanding through a shared language. The way your camera pauses on those faces pre-interview lets us fall in love with them a bit. Do you do your own camerawork? And, secondly: gestures, facial expressions, human movement (we can tell when someone is tired and shuffling, wearied, in any language): Are these our true Universal language? In a sense, the way your film looks at people tells us this. I ask, also, because I believe your partner works in dance, so am curious if that’s had an influence on you.
Green: This is a good question. I actually love that non-verbal kind of communication in documentary. The gestures and facial expressions that people make can often be far more revealing and communicative than what a person is saying. So there’s a motif throughout the film of portraits of Esperanto speakers that Andy Black and I shot at a World Esperanto Congress in Yokohama Japan.
I’ve always been struck by how profoundly diverse the Esperanto movement today is. And also the fact that Esperanto speakers are across the board nice people. No matter where they are from, they are nice. So I wanted these portraits to evoke some of that. And just showing the people in some ways is a much more compelling portrait of the language than what they might say about it—how they might sell the language themselves.
Keyframe: Though we may want to believe we are the sole operators of our destinies, we live in another highly socially engineered era, the digital age. What do you predict will be the backlash against this one?
Green: Hmmmm. A complicated question. The digital age is amazing and in many ways really is a utopia. Look at Wikipedia, or even Google images. I love Google images and feel like it’s now become a fantastic cultural treasure on the level of the Royal Library of Alexandria.
But this is all a double-edged sword. People interact different with digital media than they do with traditional (tactile?) media. I know I do. In many ways, the digital media is throwaway stuff. There’s so much of it. I find myself approaching a song or movie on my computer with much less patience and sustained attention than I would a film in a theater or an album on a record player.
Digital media is also far less social in the how it’s consumed. And this is something I definitely think people are reacting against. People seem hungry for live events still and the kind of human interaction and in-the-moment-ness that comes with that. Look at Pop-Up Magazine in SF. It’s phenomenally popular. This is the inspiration for the ‘live documentaries’ I’ve been doing. I love the magic of cinema—the feeling when the lights go down and you are in a room full of strangers and you give yourself completely to the movie. You are subsumed by this odd collective experience. By doing live cinema events, a filmmaker can keep his or her work in that context.
Todd [Griffin] is very good at understanding what I mean when I say something nutty sounding like ‘Can you make that track a little bit more ‘smiley’?’
Keyframe: Are the linguists weighing in on your film? Where’s Noam Chomsky on all this?
Green: Lingusts are often very dismissive of Esperanto. Many think that Esperanto can’t possibly be a ‘real’ language—hell, some eye doctor in Poland just made the whole thing up!
There are other lingusts though that are interested in Esperanto and appreciate that it raises interesting questions about the nature of language and culture. And it also says much about language inequality in the world today—the way language is shaped by power and politics.
Keyframe: Please remind me of what the Esperanto word for ‘female scoundrel’ is. Do you yourself have favorite Esperanto swear words?
Green: The word for female scoundrel is Inacxo. There are lots of Esperanto words in general that I like. They often have a cool, sci-fi-ish sound to em. The word for the United States is Usono. ‘Hello’ is Saluton. Those are cool words!
Keyframe: How can viewers find the hip-hop tune created by the native Esperanto speaker that closes your film?
Green: Oh man, love that song. Who knew that a hip-hop song in Esperanto could be so catchy! And the lyrics are good too! That song is called ‘Nova Kanto’ and it’s by a Brazilian rapper named Tone. We have an interview with Tone (in both English and Esperanto) as well as lots of links to his stuff on the film’s website: esperantodocumentary.com.
Susan Gerhard is the editor of Keyframe.