S.F. International Film Festival 52: “Speaking in Tongues,” “New Muslim Cool” and “Oblivion”

by Peter Wong on April 22, 2009

The Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider documentary “Speaking In Tongues” uses four students’ stories to examine the San Francisco controversy over teaching immersive bilingual education classes. Does learning Spanish or Mandarin somehow transform a child living in America into someone “less American,” he asked sarcastically.

The film makes a common sense case for teaching bilingual education. Learning through foreign language immersion increases brain capacity and learning capabilities. Other countries have already and successfully integrated bilingual classes into their educational systems. Our globalized economy makes communication in some common language more important than using only one approved language. Finally, learning another language increases understanding and empathy of other cultures.

The YouTube clip of a white couple’s musical praise for an English-only America may seem like glorified provincialism. Yet 31 American states which have passed English-only laws share that sentiment.

The sight of a little black kid dressed in traditional Chinese New Year dress does feel momentarily disorienting. But seeing a white stoner type’s dedication to speaking fluent Mandarin dispels fears of reduced academic achievement.

Jarmel and Schneider chose their documentary subjects well. The four kids seek different but emotionally compelling things from this experimental education technique. Jason, the son of an immigrant, wants to make his high school dropout father proud. Kelly’s Mandarin immersion helps her build emotional and cultural ties to her monolingual Mandarin-speaking grandmother. These kids’ likability also decreases skeptical viewers’ anxieties about the wisdom of immersive bilingual education.

The film also demystifies the dynamics of bilingual education class practice. One could have wished for more footage contrasting, say, the elementary school Mandarin class with the high school Mandarin class.

“Speaking In Tongues” leavens the human interest stories at its core with light sprinklings of facts. The viewer learns, for instance, the ideal age for beginning bilingual education. Also, the type of Spanish learned in a bilingual classroom is more technical than everyday conversational Spanish.

Overall, the positive aspects of the bilingual education program make it a worthy effort deserving of continuation. The big question is whether the city’s budget problems will squelch nurturing of this program for future classes.

But there’s also a broader philosophical question lost in “Speaking In Tongues”’ deservedly positive presentation of the immersive bilingual education program. If America is defined by the culture created by its citizens’ shared languages, what country will be born out of an at least bilingual generation?

“New Muslim Cool” offers an intimate portrait of a man attempting to build a new life for himself away from his old gang-banging and drug dealing days. Following the former Jason Perez’ efforts may seem like the stuff of slice of life documentary mundanity. What kicks director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s documentary to the next level is the medium by which her film’s subject is changing his life. Perez has voluntarily become a Muslim in post-9/11 Islamic-paranoid America.

Taylor’s three-year story of the man now known as Hamza Perez thus takes on a political aspect even when the viewer just sees a man enjoying a day in the park with his wife and kids. An important point Taylor brings up is the lack of knowledge everyday Americans had about the Islamic faith even before 9/11. Perez’ parents and siblings may not understand why Hamza turned to Islam or what the faith entails. What somebody like Perez’ mother notices is the difficulty of living with Perez in his drug-dealing days and her refusal to give up on him.

“New Muslim Cool” de-mystifies what everyday life as a Muslim is like. The quietly charismatic Perez shows by example that ordinary followers of Islam aren’t using their religious services to spread coded terrorist communiques. His friendship with a Jewish activist challenges the usual equation of Islam with anti-semitism. Even the much-maligned term “jihad” is shown to be a catchword for daily self-improvement. Taylor doesn’t pretend Muslims take a different path in practicing their faith. But that difference isn’t cause for instant demonization.

That message hasn’t reached the FBI. A raid on Perez’ mosque leads to an endangerment of the positive changes Perez has made in his life. Yet despite his problems, the devout Muslim is quietly determined to keep going forward. Perez uses his personal experience to make a persuasive presentation for rehabilitating drug dealers. He also continues to rap with his group Mujahideen Team.

It’s appropriate that Perez is seen wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. Like that superhero, the drug dealer-turned-rapper fearlessly uses his willpower to deal with the problems that he encounters in his now fulfilling life. Taylor makes us honored to follow him.

A boy without dreams embodies “Oblivion”‘s dark heart. Heddy Honigmann’s newest documentary may focus on the waiters, bartenders, and street performers living and working in the Peruvian presidential palace’s shadow. But poverty’s and presidential corruption’s intractibility remain present in their lives. The SFIFF Persistence Of Vision Award winner ably finds humor and even beauty despite such hopelessness. Footage of an acrobatic sister act or a politically cynical bartender’s anecdotes re-affirms Honigmann as cinema’s Studs Terkel.

(“Speaking In Tongues” screens with “A Day Late In Oakland” on 4/26 at 3:15 PM, 5/2 at 3:30 PM, and 5/7 at 2:30 PM. All screenings are at the Kabuki. “New Muslim Cool” screens 4/25 at 2 PM at the Pacific Film Archive, 4/26 at 3 PM at the Kabuki and is followed by the panel “Truth, Youth, And New Muslim Cool,” and 5/4 at 6:30 PM at the Kabuki. “Oblivion” screens 4/25 at 4:15 PM at the Pacific Film Archive, 4/26 at 6:30 PM at the Kabuki, and 4/28 at 3:15 PM at the Kabuki. The Sundance Kabuki Cinemas are located at 1881 Post (& Fillmore), San Francisco.) The Pacific Film Archive Theater is located at 2575 Bancroft Way (& Bowditch), Berkeley.)

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