Smithsonian Presents the Mother Tongue Film Festival, “The Healing Power of Storytelling”

Sixth Annual Festival Will Be Held Online as Free Monthly Screening Series
February 11, 2021
News Release
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Woman with bare shoulders and floral headgear stares straight ahead

Waikiki, dir. Christopher Kahunahana, 2020.

The Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative will host a monthly film-screening series highlighting the crucial role languages play in daily life. Presented virtually this year, the sixth annual Mother Tongue Film Festival features 45 films in 39 languages from regions across the globe. Through these films and discussions with filmmakers, actors and language practitioners, the festival celebrates the vital relationship between language, culture and the power of storytelling. The festival opens on the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, Feb. 21, and runs through May.

“The Mother Tongue Film Festival helps people to understand that language matters not just because it is how we express ourselves and understand each other, but because it helps us build and sustain relationships,” said Joshua A. Bell, curator of globalization at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and co-director of the festival.

Amalia Córdova, festival co-director and Latinx digital curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, said, “Mother tongue has to do more with connection than expertise or language proficiency. ‘Mother’ is about affiliation—where you come from.”

In previous years, the festival held in-person screenings across the Smithsonian, around Washington, D.C., and in venues at Indigenous events around the country. The sixth annual event breaks with convention and gives global audiences access to films and filmmakers from over 25 regions.

A partial schedule of screenings and events can be found at In the coming weeks and months, additional screenings, talkbacks and roundtables will be posted on the festival website. Viewers should register for events in advance as online attendance to film screenings will be limited. The festival’s February highlights include:

Opening Ceremony

Sunday, Feb. 21

Following opening remarks from Smithsonian organizers, the festival’s first event features a talkback with Waikiki director Christopher Kahunahana, moderated by Kālewa Correa, curator of Hawai’i and the Pacific at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Waikiki, the festival’s opening film, will be available to U.S. audiences from Feb. 21–27.

Screening: Teko Haxy/Being Imperfect

Sunday, Feb. 21—Wednesday, March 31

Teko Haxy/Being Imperfect is an experimental documentary short that embodies the tense relationship between ethnographic and Indigenous filmmaking. The documentary features two women—a Keretxu filmmaker and a Brazilian anthropologist—navigating vulnerability, interpersonal relationships and power dynamics as they film each other and their surroundings.

Documentary Filmmaker Discussion: Tote/Abuelo/Grandfather

Thursday, Feb. 25; 6:30 p.m. ET

Tzotzil filmmaker María Sojob joins Smithsonian film curator Amalia Córdova and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Sebastián Díaz for a discussion about Sojob’s debut documentary feature, Tote/Abuelo/Grandfather. The film explores the meaning of love in Tzotzil through a nuanced portrait of Sojob’s grandfather.

The Mother Tongue Film Festival is presented by Recovering Voices, a collaboration among the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of the American Indian and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Additional Smithsonian partners include the Asian Pacific American Center and the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. This program received support from Bicentenario Perú 2021, Columbia School of the Arts, Documentary Educational Resources, Embassy of Canada to the United States, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, Taiwan Academy, Taiwan Ministry of Culture, the Embassy of New Zealand, The WEM Foundation & Betty and Whitney MacMillan, and more.

About Recovering Voices

Recovering Voices is an initiative of the Smithsonian founded in response to the global crisis of cultural knowledge and language loss. It works with communities and other institutions to address issues of Indigenous language and knowledge diversity and sustainability. Recovering Voices is a collaboration between staff at the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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