In 1999, my long-time collaborator and co-director of The Linguists Seth Kramer was on location in Vilnius, Lithuania, directing the PBS documentary Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans. A local historian showed him a public square paved entirely of Jewish tombstones. They were inscribed in Yiddish: a language Seth's grandparents spoke fluently, his parents spoke moderately, and he didn't speak.
Seth had little connection to the people memorialized by those tombstones because he couldn't read them. Although Yiddish is not an endangered language, it made him reflect on what it means when a language ceases to be spoken.
Seth came to me with the idea for a documentary about language loss in 2003, when we were starting a production company called Ironbound Films. As we began our research, we were most intrigued by those who viewed the issue not with sentimentality–as Seth and I did–but as an impending global crisis: The Linguists.
All inquiries about scientists concerned with language loss pointed to David Harrison, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College. When we met him in New York City, he seemed like the perfect protagonist. He was as young as we were in 2003 (read: accessible) yet looked better on camera. At the same time, he was a bit of a control freak. If we ventured with him into the field, we knew that he would be steering the ship.
David agreed that we could tag along with him on an expedition to Siberia. In a hotel in Moscow, our staging point before heading out into the wild, we met David's co-researcher Gregory Anderson. Greg was Oscar to David's Felix. We found out in time that Greg was a recovering deadhead, the father of two, and both a huge fan of extreme fighting and a black belt. He also spoke close to twenty languages.
Shooting in Siberia was a nightmare. Even though we were told it was like Wisconsin in the summer, which is when we went, we were in no way warned about the swarms of mosquitoes and other fist-sized bugs. When we weren't taking a break from filming because someone's bug bite was swelling in a place that temporarily disfigured him–like a lip or eyelid–we were adjusting sound for the constant cloud of insects buzzing about the microphones.
Jeremy Newberger joined Ironbound Films in 2004. A Web video production guru with a pop sensibility, he specializes in grabbing an audience in three minutes, especially since he can't pay attention for longer.
The three of us continued shooting with David and Greg for two more expeditions: India and Bolivia. Seth and I, PBS documentary veterans, hungered for further explorations into the process of documenting languages, the knowledge contained within them, and their connection to culture. Jeremy sought good native eats, laughs with the locals, and a wild ride with David and Greg.
What we got was an adventure not only to the farthest reaches of the planet but also into the human mind. We hope you enjoy your seat on our voyage together.