Eyak language documentary wins festival honors

Director: ‘Language is not just words — it’s so much more.’

Dune Lankard appears in “On the Tip of the Tongue.” The documentary, chronicling attempts to revive use of the Eyak language, has screened at US and French film festivals. Photo courtesy Vincent Bonnay
Dune Lankard appears in “On the Tip of the Tongue.” The documentary, chronicling attempts to revive use of the Eyak language, has screened at US and French film festivals. Photo courtesy Vincent Bonnay

What’s in a name? Everything, says filmmaker Vincent Bonnay, in his documentary on the revival of the Eyak Native American language. The film, which evolved over six years from a TV short into a 52-minute feature, has earned spots in US and French film festivals, as well as a jury prize from the Arizona International Film Festival.

“On the Tip of the Tongue” centers on linguist Guillaume Leduey, who has visited Cordova since 2010 to study the Eyak language. Eyak attracted Leduey’s interest when he saw it had only one living speaker, linguist Michael E. Krauss, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With Krauss’s help, Leduey became fluent in Eyak and has worked to return the endangered language to use.

The unassuming Leduey’s discomfort with the camera was one of the first challenges Bonnay faced while shooting.

“Guillaume doesn’t want to be under the spotlight,” Bonnay said. “It was hard, but, because I had the time, our friendship grew up with the film. Now, he’s so good at it… Guillaume is humble, talented and — he hates when I say this — kind of a genius.”

Bonnay began filming in 2012 with a camera that recorded to tape. Over time, he upgraded his camera and bought a discounted drone with which to capture Cordova’s stark scenery. Bonnay experimented with crowdfunding, raising 3,500 euros, but mostly financed the movie with wages from his full-time job at a press agency and with a loan from his father. Bonnay’s wife wrote the English subtitles for the film and Leduey translated the Eyak dialogue.

Linguist Guillaume Leduey. “On the Tip of the Tongue,” a documentary chronicling Leduey’s attempts to revive use of the Eyak language, has screened at US and French film festivals.  Photo courtesy Vincent Bonnay
Linguist Guillaume Leduey. “On the Tip of the Tongue,” a documentary chronicling Leduey’s attempts to revive use of the Eyak language, has screened at US and French film festivals. Photo courtesy Vincent Bonnay

Although Bonnay was director, cinematographer and editor for “On the Tip of the Tongue,” he chose not to narrate the film or to appear on screen.

“I love when the filmmaker can disappear behind the story,” Bonnay said. “Having a voice-over would have meant speaking for the Eyak. It was done too much in the past, someone from far away talking over the native people… That’s what I’m most proud of, that you can have 52 minutes without hearing my voice.”

Reviving the Eyak language, which was intentionally suppressed during the colonization of Alaska, is a vital step in preserving Eyak culture, Bonnay said. Since 2012, he has witnessed and documented the transformation of Eyak from something found only in archives into a language that is used to converse and even make jokes.

“If you cut the roots, the tree dies,” Bonnay said. “This is something that should last forever for the Eyak people, and it is still recovering… Language is not just words — it’s so much more.”