Cleveland Film Fest 2023 Interview: Schon Duncan, Keli Gonzales, Jacob Koestler and Michael McDermit on Finding Their Way with Words in “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)”

The filmmakers behind “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” weren’t aware they were going to have breaking news on their hands. They were close to wrapping an interview with Ryan Mackey, the manager of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program at Tsalagi Dideloquasdi, a Cherokee immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma when he had dropped a bombshell on them, just before heading up to a Tribal Council meeting in North Carolina the next day, asking on camera, “Did you know [Cherokee Nation] just declared a state of emergency [regarding the survival of the language]?”

“I remember talking to you guys after that and I was like ‘What?!? How do you know that before I know that?” laughs Schon Duncan (ᎤᎶᎩᎳ), who wasn’t with co-director Michael McDermit and cinematographer/editor Jacob Koestler during the sit-down and had a vested interest beyond the film as a Cherokee Language instructor in the Master Apprentice program.

As surprising as it may have been in the moment to learn that such a drastic announcement was to be made, those in Cherokee Nation have operating as if they’ve been in a state of emergency for years regarding their native tongue as elders that have carried on the language are gradually passing away, making it a race against time to pass it onto the next generation who is more given to speaking English. It’s notable that Duncan, who has as much of a presence in front of the camera as much as behind it in “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak),” is referred to throughout as a teacher and student, part of a growing number of activists soaking up all they can while simultaneously disseminating what they know to others in a bid to keep this beautiful oral tradition alive. The film looks forward as much as it looks back, showing how the language was already threatened with extinction as the U.S. government sought to wipe out all indigenous ways of life with the institution of boarding schools where only English would be taught, and while it’s a diametrically opposed vernacular to pick up when it is 75% based in verbs (as opposed to English at 25%), a small circle has kept it around for centuries, not only as a form of communication but a piece of culture that can’t be taken away.

Its vitality can’t be questioned when you see Cherokee in the vibrant paintings of artist Keli Gonzales or sit in on Master Apprentice classes where the language is eagerly batted about by enthusiastic pupils of all ages, though “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” considers the investment that must be made to keep it going as Carolyn Swepston, a fellow Master Apprentice instructor of Duncan’s concedes that even on an individual level, the time she spends with the language is time she has to take away from her primary job or her family and the devotion of all involved to honor their legacy in order to create a foundation to build a greater sense of community in the future becomes one of the film’s most moving elements. That knowledge made it all the more appreciated that Duncan, McDermit, Koestler and Gonzales spared even a few minutes to talk about “ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” on the eve of its premiere at the Cleveland Film Festival this week, reflecting on a collaboration so tightly knit that it was difficult to put credits together and has already inspired other communities to take stock of what strength they can take from the past to apply to the present.

How did this come about?

Schon Duncan: I have never made a film before, but I did know the people that made up my community and Michael and Jacob were very curious about Sequoia, so when we got together, it became a natural collaboration.

Michael McDermit: Jacob and I have made a few short films under the banner of Blurry Pictures and we were originally intending to make a sprawling documentary that included a lot of little vignettes about language in general. One of those short films was about the contribution of Sequoyah, the only person to have created a written language — the Cherokee Syllabary — without being able to read or write another language. That seemed like a very unique story and Jacob and I went to North Carolina where the Eastern Band of Cherokees still reside and we started trying to make relationships with folks there. We learned very early that a film could be made, but there was this much more pressing and important story of contemporary language loss that was happening.

A man named TJ Holland opened some doors for us and said, “If you’re really interested in making this film about language loss, let me see who I can talk to” and he really was instrumental in getting people to talk to us and then when we went to Oklahoma and met Schon and Keli, and once we met them, and we saw how easy it was to work together, it really just was off to the races with a film that is obviously far more reaching than what we originally planned.

For Keli and Schon, did you always know you’d have a role in front of the camera as well as behind it?

Keli Gonzales: Schon had originally reached out needing artwork and little things [for the interstitials], and I was like, “Sure, I’ll help.” Then I just got more involved. I don’t even really know how I just became part of it.

Schon Duncan: Yeah, for a lot of the film, it’s almost like we were just living our lives as Cherokee people and I remember reaching out to Keli and being like, “Hey, you’re my friend. You can help me out with this” and then it became bigger where we were like, “I really want more Cherokee in my school, so this would be a great thing for us to collaborate on. But while we’re collaborating on that, we can also do this film.” It [became] a real deconstruction of what those roles mean because we all just do our own thing and fill in the spaces where we have to and it’s really hard to talk about those roles because it’s just the work. It’s not anything specific.

Jacob Koestler: I can speak a little bit to that [because] we were initially thinking that we wanted these animated sequences at to divide each three parts of the movie where we might hear a first-language Cherokee speaker telling a story, and that that would be in some way animated stylistically to represent Cherokee artwork. That was initially what we asked Schon about because we didn’t meet Keli [until] we were first starting to film in 2019, and then that morphed into, “We could work on a mural and then [Keli is] not making artwork for the film, but we [would] watch you make the artwork and then that grew, so she becomes an artist as a subject in the film. And then Keli invited us to three parties on the Fourth of July and now all of a sudden, that’s real producer work [and we were like] what are you going to be in the credits, Keli? Is it going to be featuring Keli or artwork by Keli? We didn’t even think about what those titles were going to be we were told film fests and distributors aren’t going to know what to do if you just say a film by the four of you, so we were rolling with it, however it needed to happen.

How did Carolyn enter the mix? Because that’s a beautiful journey that she’s on, making a pilgrimage along the Trail of Tears from Oklahoma to North Carolina.

Schon Duncan: Carolyn and I actually were in the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program together and I was her leading cohort while she was rising into it. And Carolyn’s very charismatic and just has this personality where you’re [think] “There’s a story there.” It just happened right around that time that she was going to North Carolina, and COVID was really becoming a thing where we couldn’t travel, so [when we learned] she was going on this trip, we gave her our own camera and she was like, “Yeah, I’ll do this.” And because there was a pandemic going on, we were losing Cherokee language speakers in that moment, so it was not only to document her journey, but also document these elders that she’s coming into contact with and are guiding her on this journey, because who knows who we are going to lose next week or the week after that? We get to see it in the film in a very clean way, but when it’s happening, you’re just like, “Man, how did that come out of that?” I just keep calling it the work because you don’t get to see the work until it’s done.

Jacob Koestler: That’s when there was a real relinquishing of any directorial control unlike any other movie that Mike and I have worked on. All of a sudden [with the pandemic] we’re like, “Okay, we need to raise some money to get cameras to send to them, so we don’t miss out on the story,” because we were watching news reports, me from Cleveland and Mike from Los Angeles, and they were losing more speakers faster because of the pandemic, and [because] Carolyn has this GoPro, I am allowed to go to her graduation while I can’t even leave my house at the time. And from an editor’s standpoint, it was such a gift that Carolyn shot all of that footage and give this to me to edit into the film.

Michael McDermit: Obviously, there’s [also] an intimacy with her holding the camera and talking to her children and amazing thanks go to her for just being willing to do that and to allow us to use her footage. Something like that [seemed at first like this] incredible hurdle, but we used it to our advantage. I always think about [how] the film could have been very different in a lot of ways and the pandemic certainly changed a lot of what we were planning.

Jacob, I imagine this was still difficult to piece together in a way that was easy to follow and you don’t actually even bring the master apprentice program into the film until about midway through. How did it come together in the editing?

Jacob Koeslter: Yeah, we went through a lot of drafts and [you can see in] the credits, there’s a lot of Cherokee and our group of editing friends in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Pennsylvania that gave us a lot of notes. And a lot of those notes [are] to that point [where] we don’t see the activism until halfway through when we start to learn about the Master Apprentice program, but that was actually a very conscious decision to demonstrate the different types of activism and language work.

Opening with Keli and her sister Dehalmyi in the car, [as] we do now, and then the scene with their grandparents, we all thought as a group that it was just as important to show the language [in a way that was] not as didactic as opening with something like the language program [because] that’s not what language work always looks like. I actually learned a lot more about that, sitting and listening to these first-language speakers, [which] is at the core of keeping the culture alive through the language, and the [typical] way [to show that would be to] spend the whole first half of the movie presenting a problem and then presenting a solution, but we wanted to weave all of that in together all of the time, so there’s a continual stream happening throughout the whole movie.

Michael McDermit: Yeah, and it was important to always focus on the intimacy that we were striving to achieve in the film [where] we go to Keli’s house and you’re in that living room too. Yes, classrooms are important to this, but also [in] these little communities down dirt roads where Cherokee is still spoken by families, that was super important as well and without Schon and Keli’s generosity in opening their homes to cameras, [we were grateful for that] huge piece of the puzzle.

Does anything happen that changes your ideas of what it could be?

Schon Duncan: There are a lot of things that have happened, but most recently through our Kickstarter and people becoming a little bit aware of the project and wanting to see it, we have been reached out to by multiple tribes and other minority language groups. This film was always about Cherokee people, about my culture and my community and I thought Cherokees are going to want to see this film because it’s about us. But I don’t think that I realized how this film relates to other people.

Just because we’re talking about Cherokee language loss doesn’t mean that it doesn’t relate to other communities where that’s happening as well, so it’s really changed from the idea of how I’m gonna share our story to how can sharing our story help other people? They’re asking us to come visit the reservation and screen the film with them so they can initiate and activate their own communities around their own languages and it’s just really opened up this world [where] I want to not only save my language and my culture, but I also want to help people do that same work in their communities. I’m on such a high right now because I love working with people in that way. Hopefully we get to inspire not only Cherokees but people around the world to do the same thing and if we get to make a positive impact on not only our future generations but [others] who need to see this story to kick off their own journey, that’s going to be one of the greatest things that I think I’ve ever done and hopefully it comes to fruition in that way.

Keli Gonzales: Yeah, I’m excited to see all these people celebrated. Because there are people who are at the forefront, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes and it’s really cool to have a positive message about the revitalization and I’m excited for everyone to see it.

“ᏓᏗᏬᏂᏏ (We Will Speak)” will screen at the Cleveland Film Festival on March 23rd at 7:30 pm at the Allen Theatre and will be available to stream via CIFF from April 2nd through 9th.

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