Summer Centered: Summer DocuLab Fellows Zoom in on Zapotec Languages
Supported by VCAM and the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, five students used filmmaking to aid Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen in her study of Zapotec language and culture in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Five students, eight weeks, countless cameras, and one ticket to Mexico is a recipe for invaluable research experience and an unforgettable opportunity for this year’s Summer DocuLab fellows.
Anchored by Haverford’s Visual Culture Art and Media (VCAM) building, Summer DocuLabs is a donor-funded five-year program that supports student-faculty film collaborations. The program, which is co-sponsored by the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities (HCAH), will take up a different project each summer.
"Each summer, students will spend time both on campus and in the field developing documentary projects, working with faculty, visiting filmmakers, and technicians,” said Associate Director of HCAH and VCAM Operations Manager James Weissinger. “The final product may take many forms — a traditional documentary film, a media installation, a series of Instagram videos, or other formats depending on the project.”
This summer’s inaugural Doculab project is called “Dizhsa Nabani - Living Language” and explores Zapotec languages, a family of indigenous languages spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, and by diaspora populations in the United States. Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen is the faculty leader behind this year’s project, which builds on her ongoing research on Zapotec languages and culture in collaboration with Zapotec activist Moisés García Guzmán.
"Zapotec languages are considered threatened as they are being acquired as native languages by fewer and fewer people,” said Lillehaugen. “Most Zapotec people today are bilingual, and under pressure from anti-indigenous discrimination, many choose to use Spanish in contexts that were previously reserved as Zapotec-language domains, including the home, the market, and town meetings. Given this sociolinguistic context, speaking Zapotec can be seen as an act of resistance. Community and individual identity are entwined with language, especially in Mexico, where criteria for self-identifying as belonging to an indigenous community usually includes speaking the corresponding language.”
The goal of Dizhsa Nabani, therefore, is to explore how language, power, and identity interact and interlock in rural Oaxaca, through the production of a short documentary. So the DocuLab team is exploring the ways in which language is interwoven with the identity the Zapotec community, including the relationship between language and traditional farming, knowledge of plants and their uses, cooking techniques, food, and health — while the cameras roll.
The final film and social media products of DocuLab 2018 have the potential to resonate with a multitude of audiences, from Zapotec communities to anyone interested in threatened languages and work being done to resist that threat.
The student fellows in the Summer DocuLab program are Sabea Evans ’18, Kathryn Goldberg BMC ’18, Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe ’18, Eddie Ogborn ’19, and Katie Rodgers ’18, all of whom began preparing for this project months before they boarded a plane to Mexico.
"The team met throughout the spring semester prior to the trip, as well as prepared via the coursework, with the linguists taking ‘Intro to Documentary Film’ and the film students studying linguistics,” said Weissinger.
As a comparative literature major, Eddie Ogborn ’19 found himself exploring the intersections of the two fields outlined by Weissinger in a new way.
"With DocuLab, I am continuing to build my filmmaking ability daily in Oaxaca, whether the work consists in actual filming, media management, or editing,” he said. “I've also been surrounded by talented linguists and conversations about linguistics, which I've always had an interest in.”
The students are supported by Production Coordinator Hilary Brashear ’13, who assists the current students with their work in Oaxaca. HCAH also helped to connect two professional filmmakers with the team — Lucia Palmarini, based in Mexico City, and Laura Deutch, based in Philadelphia. Palmarini journeyed to Oaxaca with the DocuLab team, while Deutch helped the students edit their footage in VCAM when they returned.
For English major Katie Rodgers ’18, the DocuLab experience has been full of valuable lessons about filmmaking and the importance of connecting with professors and mentors.
"I was drawn to this project because of my passion for film and also the social justice component of the project,” she said. “It has been an honor to be able to use my artistic passion for something that I truly believe in. Moisés García Guzmán is an incredible person and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him. He is joy to be around and the brains behind this project. It's also incredible to be working with Professor Brook Danielle Lillehaugen. She is a brilliant, thoughtful, kind person. I learned so much from both her and Mr. Guzmán.”
"I have been working with speakers of Zapotec languages for 19 years,” said Lillehaugen. “As a linguist I am interested in understanding the structure of the languages I work on as well as sociolinguistic context of language use. I am also very interested in considering how linguistics can effectively support language activists, such as Moisés García Guzmán. DocuLab is giving me a chance to consider specifically how film can intervene in cases of linguistic inequity.”
While Summer DocuLabs itself is a new initiative, the Hurford Center has long supported student and faculty filmmakers on campus through programs like the Tri-Co Film Festival, the annual Strange Truth Film Series, and past student-faculty film collaborations, which include WAKE (with Visual Media Scholar Vicky Funari and Associate Professor of Chemistry Helen White), Capitalish (with Associate Professor of Political Science Craig Borowiak), and The Pool Movie Project (with Funari). But the new film-focused spaces in VCAM—the object study/media production classroom, film/media editing studio, and screening room—now provide a home for and resources devoted specifically to this work.
"DocuLab builds on years of successful pilot projects undertaken by Haverford faculty and students,” Weissinger said. “The goal is for students to continue to develop and hone their filmmaking skills by working on a substantive media project; importantly, the project should further or enhance the work of Brook's broader research and Moisés García Guzmán's language activism, through a final film that is intellectually, ethically, and aesthetically rigorous and compelling.”
"This fellowship has taught me a lot about the ethical and technical nuances of this line of work,” said Ogborn, “and there is still much to learn. I've both gained an understanding of the mass of work that goes into making even a short documentary, and an appreciation for having a strong team dynamic that can pull it off.”
"Some of the most rewarding moments [of the program] have been being able to just sit and listen to the people that have been welcoming us into their homes, lives, and discussions,” said student fellow Sabea Evans ’18. “It’s been amazing to find ourselves able to productively participate in their ongoing work and dedication to the larger project of preserving and rekindling Zapotec identity and practices, in a way that ethically represents their experiences and centers the authority and knowledge of our collaborators.”
"The student fellows are charged with bringing their academic training and creativity to a challenging task”, said Lillehaugen. “They have fully engaged their linguistic training, language knowledge, translation skills, editing prowess, and creative vision in a way that has been very encouraging to me and leaves me very hopeful for the impact of this work.”