Julia Schulz and Ben Levine of Speaking Place in Rockland are engaged in preserving rare languages using tools made possible by video. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

ROCKLAND – In a modest house not far from the harbor, Julia Schulz and Ben Levine are working to revive endangered languages from Maine to Mexico.

Their nonprofit, Speaking Place, teaches people to capture their stories on video and use what they’ve collected to pump life back into their threatened communities.

For decades, the pair have quietly explored the use of video to empower people who are often overwhelmed and overlooked, from the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine to remote mountain villages in southern Mexico.

They’ve focused as well on efforts to preserve Franco-American culture in Maine.

“People are hungry for it,” Schulz said, because they want to know more about their language, culture and roots.

Through it all, the pair have never made much money and rarely received much notice.

But this year, a documentary called “Crip Camp,” received such acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival that it’s now available on Netflix. Co-directors Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham relied heavily on footage Levine collected half a century ago in New York. Among the film’s executive producers are Barack and Michelle Obama.

This is a scene from “Crip Camp,” a documentary on Netflix that uses footage captured by Maine’s Ben Levine half a century ago. Submitted photo

The Hollywood Reporter called it “an inspiring, lively birth-of-a-movement documentary” that captured life at a camp for disabled teens in the Catskill Mountains in New York with one of the first small, portable video cameras.

What made it especially cool was the ability to play back the video right away, to show it to those it featured and get immediate feedback, something that Levine said built on itself to amplify the message.

In a sense, as they captured a record of the moment, the images served as a catalyst to build an ever-greater sense of community.

The powerful videos preserved by Levine and partner Howard Gutstadt — boxed up this past weekend and ready to ship to an archive at New York University — show young people speaking for themselves at the dawn of the disability rights movement that eventually led to everything from handicapped parking spaces to wheelchair-friendly curbing.

Levine showed a black-and-white photograph he’d recently found of himself in those days, depicting a long-haired hippie with a clunky camcorder.

“I’ve got to scan that!” said Schulz, who hadn’t seen it before.

Now balding with a fair share of gray hair, Levine looks like a typical guy his age. But he hasn’t lost the passion and sense of social justice that once led him to get the boot from academia for participating in anti-war protests.

He moved to Maine in the mid-1970s, drawn to it because it felt a bit like his old hometown in Brockton, Mass. It needed help, he recalled, because its industrial and agricultural base had collapsed.

Levine said he wanted to lend a hand “to raise culture from within,” to assist in making Maine a place where the arts could thrive.

He wound up making the first documentary to air on Maine Public, telling the story of the Maine Festival of the Arts created by humorist Marshall Dodge at Bowdoin College in 1976.

After that, Levine took an interest in the French-Canadian community in Maine, a timely obsession given the stirrings of independence in Quebec, where so many Maine families had their roots.

In Quebec, Levine noted, people were fighting to “get their language back” while in Maine it remained almost hidden.

The Ku Klux Klan’s anti-immigrant stance played a crucial role in squelching the use of the French language among immigrants in Maine during the 1900s. Submitted photo

“Something was blocking them from speaking French in Maine,” Levine said.

What he and Schulz, who taught French in Rockland, discovered as they talked to people and captured them on video is that Franco-Americans in the Pine Tree State were often ashamed of their language, worried it lacked the polish of proper French.

More deeply, though, they found that the Franco community in the state was scared of its own language, something the couple eventually discerned was a lingering effect of the Ku Klux Klan’s opposition to the Quebec immigrants during the 1920s, when Maine became a hotbed for the immigrant-hating Klan.

Levine eventually made two feature-length documentaries — “Réveil – Waking Up French” and “Si je comprends bien…” — that helped expose the problem and are widely credited with helping to spur a revival of the French language throughout New England.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said the French community members who saw it got quite emotional. “It hit home,” he said, and helped expose “a lost generation” of Franco-Americans in Maine.

Rollins said the movie, and the conversations it spurred, played a role in bringing back the old French culture through language.

Seeing how the documentaries helped revive French in Maine, the Passamaquoddy Tribe approached the filmmakers to find out if they’d be interested in trying something similar with their Native American language threatened with extinction after generations of racism.

Levine said that with funding from the National Science Foundation and lots of help from the community, “Speaking Place” ultimately made more than 100 videos in Passamaquoddy language and put them all online along with the first online language site to link a dictionary to the videos’ subtitles.

Now, for the first time in half a century, there are new speakers of the Passamaquoddy language, a dialect of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, a language also spoken by the Maliseet in northern Maine.

Levine said the language preserves “a completely different way of looking at the world” that’s important to hang onto in an era when monolithic cultures are squeezing out the world’s diversity.

Schulz said that working on the Passamaquoddy videos with community members proved “an incredible education for both of us” and made it clear to them that language preservation was at the core of what they were doing.

Ben Levine records a scene in Mexico for Speaking Place, his nonprofit teaches people to capture their stories on video and promote and preserve their language. Submitted photo

They’re now engaged with 10 communities in the mountains of southern Mexico to save and promote half a dozen native languages by building institutions to foster use of the language, from videos to a radio station.

Though Speaking Place’s work doesn’t get much attention, sometimes its videos do.

One clip from a village in Mexico shows a man hacking a tree limb with a machete to make a spinning top, which he can handle masterfully. It has nearly a million views on YouTube.

Those sorts of moments are part of what keep Levine and Schulz going.

They’re the kinds of things “you can’t put a price on,” Levine said of the moments the couple string together and showcase to the world.

“People are hungry for it,” Schulz said.

Levine said that pouring their efforts into their projects means they’ll never have a boat or fabulous vacations like college friends. Instead, he said, they’ll have the constant stress of trying to do what they can with what they have to make a better world.

“You don’t make a living” doing what he and Schulz do, Levine said. Rather, he said, “you make a life.”

As part of the Cabin Fever Film Festival, people can see “Crip Camp” at 7 p.m. Friday at the Camden Opera House, 29 Elm St. in Camden. It will be shown again at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. For details and tickets: cabinfever2020.eventive.org.


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