Eyak film premieres at Anchorage International Film Festival

French filmmaker spent six years documenting Eyak people in Cordova

French filmmaker Vincent Bonnay, left, celebrates the return of his audio after some technical issues at the Alaska Experience Theatre in Anchorage on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. The Anchorage International Film Festival started late after their venues were closed and suffered damage from the 7.0 earthquake on Nov. 30 which cancelled their opening night.(Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Eyak pride and resilience echoed in the Alaska Experience Theatre during the world premiere of French filmmaker Vincent Bonnay’s feature-length documentary, “On The Tip of The Tongue” (Sur Le Bout De La Langue).

Filmed in Cordova, the documentary follows Eyak people on their journey to regain their language, culture, land and identity stolen from them many years ago, although the pain still palpable today.

“I don’t know, I breathe differently,” Bonnay said after his Anchorage International Film Festival premiere on Dec. 9. “As they have to move forward as (Jenna May) said in the film … I have to move forward … I don’t think I can put that much of my heart in another film. This is much more than just a project.”

Bonnay’s solely independent film was one of just 160 selected for the 2018 festival, which received more than 1,000 entries.

“This film was a really interesting one of how…just someone took it upon themselves… to learn about another culture to try to keep those memories and that spirit alive,” AIFF programming director Samona Norombaba said of Bonnay and his main character, French linguist Guillaume Leduey. “I love the film, but even more than that, I love hearing him talk about it. He very much believes in the story that he’s telling.”

Bonnay spent the past six years working on this film, following the Eyak people as they held Eyak Culture Camp and Leduey, who helped teach them their language.

“You have too many films that would say that what happened to the Native people in Alaska and anywhere in the U.S. and North America basically has been sad, and it is sad …,” Bonnay said. “I felt like this is not my goal. What I wanted with this film was just show to everyone else … yes what happened was awful … but moving forward and now people are fighting for their right, fighting for their existence.”

Leduey began learning Eyak at the age of 12. Researching the language on the Internet, he stumbled upon Michael Krauss’ Alaska Native Language Map, which identified all Native languages spoken in Alaska, plus the number of speakers for each.

“… next to Eyak was just the number one,” Leduey said. “I started wondering why there would be only one speaker left. I didn’t know anything about endangered languages at all, and I thought, well, one speaker left, that means it’s in danger, so I should probably help and try to start learning it.”

At the end of the premiere, Bonnay asked all Eyak people in the audience to stand, and they did, to thunderous applause.

French filmmaker Vincent Bonnay, center, speaks about his film after it premiered at the Alaska Experience Theatre in Anchorage on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

“I think it’s so beautiful and so important that something as sort of trivial as a film festival can do something that big … something that means so much to the people’s history and culture and self-feeling and to bring them together at a place like this,” said Norwegian filmmaker Ida Theresa Myklebost. “In this tiny little room here today, we shared a story together here that means so much to people.”

“This film is relevant for any nation that has seen their culture eroded away and had languages be lost, both in the past and also languages that are facing extinction in the future,” she said. Myklebost spoke of the Sami people who reside in northern Norway, “… they have their language, which in Norway also was … suppressed and pushed down on, so we have similar storylines.”

In Norway, before the news is shown on the state channel, five minutes of Sami news is aired in their language, she said. While this helps to bring awareness and recognition, they still have a long way to go, she said.

“A film like this…it’s a global issue, we’re losing languages and cultures every day,” Myklebost said. “Other cultures are sort of monopolizing and almost like a virus going on into other cultures.”

Bonnay’s ultimate goal was to have his film premiere in Alaska, with his characters, now friends, there in attendance.

“You want them to love it because it’s more than a movie,” he said. “I hope it’s much more than that for the Eyak people.”

Vincent Bonnay and Eyak people from the audience take a group photo after the premiere of Bonnay’s film featuring Eyak people of Cordova at the Anchorage International Film Festival on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Bonnay acknowledged many people who helped with creation of his film, from composers offering music for free to the Eyak people for allowing him their time.

“It really was a journey,” said Eyak Cultural Foundation President Jenna May of the film.

“… you know you see the importance of it as a people and as a culture but (Bonnay), as a person who’s not part of it, saw the importance of it for us as well so that’s kinda special …”

Bonnay and May have a strong bond, evident in the way they joke with each other.

“The great thing about Vincent is that your name in Eyak,” May said, looking to him. “k’uLA’ahshiyah,” he responded.

“Little muskrat,” she said. “Badass muskrat,” he corrected with a laugh.

“He is like that, the k’uLA’ahshiyah, because he helps with everything, so you don’t really know he’s filming half the time,” May said.

During his time in Cordova filming, he also helped at the Eyak Culture Camp and helped the youth at the camp create an Eyak cooking show.

Now Bonnay, Leduey and May are looking for other contacts to showcase his film, including the United Nations, which has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and the Administration for Native Americans.

Vincent Bonnay’s film, On The Tip of The Tongue, was selected for the Anchorage International Film Festival and was premiered at the Alaska Experience Theatre in Anchorage on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)