Review: By the Throat
- Effi Weiss and Amir Borenstein’s documentary is a thorough, compelling study of language and speech that thinks outside the box
There is a visual and verbal metaphor of a rainbow that appears in many places throughout Effi Weiss and Amir Borenstein’s documentary By the Throat, which is currently playing in the Depth of Field competition at Docaviv. It is the third collaboration between Weiss and Borenstein (credited simply as “Effi & Amir” here) in the feature-length documentary format, and this time, it is about speech and language. The rainbow metaphor is actually put to good use, since certain similarities are undeniable: just as the white light disperses and reflects through the tiny droplets of water to create a rainbow, the same can be said about our breath, as the air bumps into the physical obstacles in our throat to create vowels and consonants.
In comparison to nationality, ethnicity and religion, language seems like a more fixed and stable element in defining one’s identity, but this story is actually more complicated than just that of languages and dialects learnt through our imitation of parents, relatives, peers and other people in our environment. On one hand, there are numerous aspects of physics, mechanics and acoustics that explain how the air travels from the lungs through the throat and out of the mouth. On the other, however, there are cultural differences, individual experiences and stories that entail prejudice and a view on how somebody from somewhere specific should speak a certain language. Effi & Amir try to succeed in tackling all of this in a brisk 77-minute running time.
The way we speak our native or any foreign languages determines many things. It can get us into serious trouble, which was the case with an Iraqi man having to pass checkpoints in civil war-torn Baghdad, where the slight difference between “El Ezziz” and “Al Aziz” could result in death at certain checkpoints because the micro-dialects are different in Shiite and Sunni neighbourhoods. Also, during the turmoil in Northern Ireland, the pronunciation of the eighth letter of the alphabet was a dead giveaway as to whether someone was from a Catholic nationalist or from a Protestant unionist neighbourhood. Stories about actors trying to shake off their native accents are manifold, but the French pronunciation of the letter “R” can pigeon-hole a Flemish actor and lead to them being cast only as a person from Ghent.
However, the most interesting stories are connected with immigration. An Albanian woman takes an Italian name and learns to speak German as an Italian person would do in order to sell fraudulent financial products as a call-centre worker. The most upsetting part of the film is the revelation that language tests conducted by both linguists and computers are used in order to check out asylum seekers’ backgrounds and where they are from, and that those tests are basically of a rule-of-thumb type and cannot take into account the subtle nuances that life is made up of.
Weiss and Borenstein use plenty of different varieties of material here, from archival educational films to interviews and even YouTube clips, coding it in a clear fashion with the help of their co-editor, Simon Arazi. They also do a good job of illustrating the science-based talk, which could have become a bit too niche and demanding, with playful graphics accompanied by the robotic voice of Vittoria Soddu, creating the nostalgic feeling of an old computer game. Furthermore, they use the discreet electronic score composed by Thomas Myrmel to accompany the video material. In the end, By the Throat is a thorough, compelling and original examination of the roles that language and speech play in our lives.
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