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From Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978), dir. Barbet Schroeder (image courtesy Criterion Collection)

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I consistently wish we would get more documentaries that examine the history and construction of languages. Here are just a few great representative examples of the potential this genre has. An element not just of culture but of different ways of living in and experiencing the world, language is ripe for cinematic exploration.

Yiddish (2020)

In this documentary, Nurith Aviv takes an unusual approach to history, having seven dedicated Yiddish speakers talk about the language — what they love about it, what drew them to it, and most intriguingly, how they each relate to a different Yiddish poet. Such invocations of literature make the beauty and richness of the language come alive.

On Vimeo and OVID.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978)

It’s widely believed that not only does the use of complex language distinguish humans from other animals, but also that language itself characterizes and shapes intelligence. Barbet Schroeder tests this idea with this film about Koko, the gorilla who famously learned an extensive vocabulary of both spoken words and sign language. Regardless of whether she truly ever “understood” complex language or not, Koko makes for an immensely compelling protagonist.

On Criterion Channel.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013)

Noam Chomsky is best known as a political philosopher, but he got his start as a linguist. In this film, director Michel Gondry explains various theories about language and its relationship to cognition through animation. Chomsky narrates, and whimsical visuals illustrate his lectures. It’s a great primer on how the way we speak affects the way we think.

On various platforms.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He is studying in the masters program at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany. You can find his all his links and public profiles here.