‘Lost Tongue’ debuts at international film festival

A SOUTH African documentary, shot over three years about the endangered N!uu San language, is headed for the international spotlight after being named a “surprise” film at the acclaimed Socially Relevant Film Festival New York next month.

When Lost Tongue premieres at the international film festival, a week-long event featuring documentaries and short films from more than 30 countries, it will take to the world the story of a language once declared “officially extinct”, only for a handful of speakers to turn up decades later.

Lost Tongue, the first feature of director Davison Mudzingwa, was filmed principally in Andriesvale near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park..

It was the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation that declared the N!uu language “officially extinct” in 1973. But in the 1990s that proved to be untrue.

Mudzingwa said only three members of the the Khomani San community in Andriesvale, sisters Katrina Esau, Hanna Koper and Griet Seekoie, speak the N!uu language fluently.

“The youngest is Katrina Esau and she is 80 years old,” he said.

The rest of the residents speak Afrikaans. The film follows the journey of Helena Steenkamp, a Khomani San woman who works at a non-profit organisation called the Bushman Council, as she begins to ask “questions about her identity and the origins of her people”.

“Helena is trying to learn the language, which is proving to be a tough challenge for her,” said Madzingwa.

“The distance between her and her mentor, Ouma Katrina Esau, is 200km. Ouma Esau is based in Upington and Helena is in Andriesvale.”

Mudzingwa, who first visited the Andriesvale community while working on a short film titled Bush Trail, said Lost Tongue became a “conduit to something bigger”.

“We have a community at the margins of the country and our hope is that this film will be the window to the plight faced by the #Khomani San people,” he said.

Working with cinematographer Themba Vilakazi and South African producer Francis Hweshe, along with US producer MeSun Barnett, the feature was filmed between November 2012 and December last year, mainly in Andriesvale, with parts also shot in Joburg and Upington.

It was funded by Production Company Mvura Ya Afrika Productions (MYA), and non-profit group Entrepreneurship Africa. MYA has also launched an initiative called the Lost Tongue Legacy Project to raise funds to build a multimedia centre in a bid to preserve the language before it is too late.

“We are urging the government, private sector and the donor community to assist with this urgent work of preserving the language,” he said.

After premiering in New York, the documentary will be shown at the Singapore World International Film Festival at the end of the year.

Hweshe said the movie would also definitely be “coming home” to South Africa, and that MYA had applied to have it shown at upcoming local film festivals. He also wants to “take the film to the community”, and show it at schools, libraries and universities.

About the author

Asmaa Mubita is a Kenyan journalist of international repute with over fifteen years of experience in broadcast journalism. Asmaa Mubita began his journalism career at the Kenyan state broadcaster (KBC) and later worked at the KTN owned by the Standard Group and Citizen Television, the flagship brand of Royal Media Services. These exploits together with his reporting experience with the Voice of America, CNN and BBC have been rewarded with local and global recognition.