The Universal Language Documentary Film Proposal
1. your qualifications
I am a San Francisco-based independent documentary filmmaker. I received a
master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, where I
studied documentary film with acclaimed filmmaker Marlon Riggs. My most recent
feature-length film The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award in
2004, broadcast nationally on PBS, and was included in the Whitney Biennial. I currently
teach film at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism
and the University of San Francisco. My other award-winning documentaries include The
Rainbow Man/John 3:16; lot 63, grave c; N-Judah 5:30; and Pie Fight ’69. I have
received grants for my work from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller
Foundation, the Creative Capital Foundation, and the California Council for the
Humanities. I have done residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and
Conference center and the Djerassi Resident Arts Program. For more information, please
My producing partner, Carrie Lozano, also earned a master’s degree in journalism
from U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2005, where she studied
documentary film with renowned filmmakers Jon Else and Deborah Hoffmann. After we
produced The Weather Underground, she produced/directed Reporter Zero (2005), a
short documentary film about maverick AIDS-journalist Randy Shilts, which premiered
at the 2006 International Berlin Film Festival, won the student Academy Award for Best
Documentary, and has been nominated for two International Documentary Association
awards. In addition, she is currently executive producing a documentary film about the
groundbreaking attorney, Charles Garry, who represented some of the most high-profile
progressive figures of the last century.
2. the problem on which you propose to conduct research
We are currently researching and developing a documentary film about the
Esperanto movement and its history entitled The Universal Language. Obviously, our
approach to the subject will be different from that of most researchers applying for
support from the Esperantic Studies Foundation. We are approaching this project as
documentary filmmakers and journalists as opposed to academics. Our sense from
looking at the list of projects funded by the ESF on the group’s website is that most
people applying for support are academic researchers and many are Esperanto speakers as
well. While we are outsiders in comparison, we are drawn to Esperanto by its fascinating
history and by the vibrant movement and intellectual inquiry that continue to surround it.
Most Americans know nothing at all about Esperanto, and the few who do usually
think of it as the language spoken in “that weird William Shatner movie.” A documentary
film on the subject would be engaging and informative, but more importantly, it would
elevate and make accessible the ideas that Esperanto represents. We see the advent of
Esperanto as fitting into the specific historical context of a blossoming of utopian thought
and projects that took place during the late-19th and early 20th centuries. It is no
coincidence that Zamenhof published the Unua Libro in 1887 just a year before Edward
Bellamy published his seminal utopian novel Looking Backward. These ideas were
clearly in the air, and there is a spirit of modernist utopian thinking that runs through
many ambitious projects from that time, from the socialist movement to Le Corbusier.
Unlike most of those other projects, Esperanto still exists with speakers and
students all over the world. Although the realization of Zamenhof’s specific dream seems
unlikely at this point, the continued existence of Esperanto and the vibrant movement
around it are inspirational reminders of another, more hopeful time.
In this way, through contrast, Esperanto says much about the world today—it
shines a light on the anti-utopian nature of the current moment. We have become
suspicious of the desire to radically remake the world, and when we encounter it, the
utopian impulse can seem anachronistic. “Today most observers judge utopians or their
sympathizers as foolhardy dreamers at best and murderous totalitarians at worst,” writes
Russell Jacoby in his recent book Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an AntiUtopian Age. “Buoyant idealism has long disappeared. In an age of permanent
emergencies, more than ever we have become narrow utilitarians dedicated to fixing, not
reinventing, the here and now.”
While our film will specifically focus on the Esperanto movement, we believe
that its story will evoke important issues and questions about the modern world: What has
happened to our ability to imagine a future based on humankind’s noblest impulses? Why
don’t people have utopian dreams anymore, and what does this say about our society
today? What have we gained and what have we given up with our more “realistic”
notions of human nature and its limitations?
This is, in many ways, a truly frightening time we’re living in. Issues like global
warming, AIDS on an international level, and the horrifying inequalities of globalization
are enormous challenges for humanity that will only be solved with a great deal of
imagination, creativity, and global cooperation. Our goal with this project will be to
inspire audiences to consider the important and necessary role that hope, action, and an
ambitious vision for the future can play in making the world a better place.
We are making this film for a broad audience of non-Esperanto speakers, but as
with our previous work, we hope to target the film to younger people. We believe that our
approach to Esperanto will be similar to that taken by Arika Okrent in her recent piece on
the language for The American Scholar. She did a good job of looking at Esperanto and
acknowledging some of its quirkiness, while taking serious the ideas that it represents.
Our project would certainly look at Esperanto from a linguistic perspective, and deal with
the important issues of linguistic imperialism that it raises. But beyond that, we will focus
on the significance of hope in Esperanto and the ability of a movement to remain hopeful
and to maintain an ambitious vision of social change, especially in today’s world. These
ideas seem like great gifts that the Esperanto movement could offer.
3. the research you propose to conduct
At this point, we are still very much in the research and development stage with
this project. We are currently trying to get a sense of how to proceed in making this film.
What is the best way to translate the story of Esperanto, and the ideas that it represents,
into a documentary film? At this point in the documentary filmmaking process, we are
trying to do several things simultaneously:
1) We are learning as much as possible about the subject by reading everything
that is available and also talking to people. We have begun corresponding
with Esperanto speakers and scholars, but also meeting with them in person
whenever possible. So far, I have had very useful conversations with
Humphrey Tonkin, Arika Okrent, Osmo Buller, the staff at the UEA
headquarters in Rotterdam, Don Harlow, and Daniel Cuthbert. I attended the
Universala Kongreso in Florence recently where I met numerous people and
immensely deepened my knowledge and understanding of the language and
the people involved with Esperanto. It was quite a striking experience to see
such a diverse group of people come together and make concrete the abstract
notions of equality and mutual respect that animate the Esperanto movement.
2) We are getting a sense of the range of visual materials that exist and could be
used in this film. Primarily, we are researching archival film footage and
photographs that document and evoke the history of Esperanto. Our next step
would be to hire an archival footage researcher to do an assessment of the
material in European and American archival footage collections. Archival
footage research is a very specialized skill that usually depends on personal
connections and relationships with archivists—in my experience it is far more
fruitful to hire an expert than to try to do this oneself. With the results of that
assessment, we will screen selected archival film and photos, both by
traveling to some archives to view the material in person and, whenever
possible, requesting viewing tapes of the material. We also plan to see if we
can track down any home movies that can be useful in illustrating the history
of Esperanto. Unlike many documentary filmmakers, we believe very strongly
in the power and importance of strong visual images. This film can only work
if we are able to uncover a wealth of archival imagery.
3) We are working to get a sense of a range of “characters” that we could focus
on with this documentary. We know that there are compelling, articulate
people who can talk about the history of the language and the issues and ideas
that we are interested in, but honing in on these experts requires extensive preinterviewing. This requires speaking to as many people as possible in person,
and in this way is closely connected with item #1 above. As I mentioned, I
was able to meet a number of interesting people at the Universala Kongreso
and hope to follow up with a number of them in the future.
4. the expected value of your proposed research
From the perspective of the Esperantic Studies Foundation, the expected value of
this project will be that we will introduce Esperanto to a wide audience—most of whom
will have known little or nothing of the language beforehand. The film will offer a
nuanced and balanced portrait of the language, and we are committed to making an
entertaining, yet intellectually provocative film. Exposing a wide audience to Esperanto
and the values that it represents will be tremendously valuable and, we hope,
The value of this project for us is that we will use Esperanto as a vehicle through
which to raise issues and questions for younger audiences about hope, the state of the
world today, and the importance and value of having a creative vision for the future. With
this film, we hope to move viewers emotionally, and, in a small way, to encourage them
to think critically about how to best engage with the pressing issues of the world today. If
The Universal Language can stir the imagination of a broad audience of young people
and kindle a small spark of hope, we will feel that this will have been a profound
These goals dovetail with the values that I believe inspire the Esperantic Studies
Foundation as well as much of the Esperanto movement in general.
5. where and in what form you hope to publish your research results
We anticipate that we will continue researching and developing the project
through mid-2007. We plan on shooting the film and editing it in 2007 and 2008. Our
goal is to finish The Universal Language by January 2009.
Because we believe very strongly in the ideas behind this project, we are
extremely committed to distributing the film as widely as possible. Specifically, we have
a sequential strategy of distributing the film through international film festivals,
international theatrical release, US and foreign television, and international DVD.
Through the experience of distributing our previous documentary The Weather
Underground, we have developed a number of very strong relationships with a group of
individuals and companies in the field, and we plan on continuing to work with these
folks with The Universal Language—people like Ken Eisen at Shadow Distribution and
the international sales agent Annie Roney at Roco Films.
We are confident that the film will screen very widely at festivals (I have had five
films premier at Sundance). We also believe that, like The Weather Underground, The
Universal Language will air widely on international television (POV or Independent Lens
in this country) and screen in theaters around the world.
Because of the subject matter of the film, it is also quite important to us that the
film screens internationally. To facilitate this, we plan to create a DVD master of The
Universal Language that will include subtitles in all major languages, as well as in
Esperanto. To screen this film in countries around the world—and inspire thought and
discussion on an international level—goes to the heart of this project.
6. how the proposed research will relate to other work you have done and expect to do
This film is a continuation of many of the themes that I have explored in my
previous documentary films (please see for a filmography). All of my
work has used historical narratives to look at issues of hope, social change, and the
complex nature of the current historical moment.
Our most recent film The Weather Underground told the story of the rise and fall
of the radical American student group that bombed more than two-dozen government and
corporate buildings in the US during the late 1960s and 1970s. The goal of this film was
not so much to give answers but to raise questions. By exploring this controversial
subject with depth and balance, we hoped to encourage a broad debate of some of the
most important issues of our time. What would real social justice look like—not just in
America, but throughout the world? What is our responsibility as Americans for the
inequalities of globalism? How do we as a society define violence and terrorism? And
can violence ever be justified in the pursuit of social change?
The Weather Underground, and much of the social movements of that era, was
inspired by a vision of a radically better world. Today that creative ferment is not as
obvious as it was at the turn of the century or during the Vietnam era. The Universal
Language will look at the importance of hope and a vision in making social change.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit’s recent book about activism, she writes:
“Action is impossible without hope. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her
words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes
they start a mass movement and millions do…. All that these transformations have in
common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.”
7. the human and institutional resources available to you for your conduct of the research
Although I teach at two prestigious Bay Area universities, I am an adjunct
professor, so I don’t receive a lot of institutional support. Instead, I fund projects through
the independent documentary film world—foundations, arts organizations, and
progressive organizations. Obviously, raising money for this kind of independent,
experimental documentary film is extremely difficult. With The Universal Language, we
are following the same strategy we used with The Weather Underground and attempting
to raise production funds from a wide variety of sources. We are focusing first on
foundations and arts organizations, including: Harburg, LEF, MacArthur, Paul Robeson
Fund, Ettinger, the NEA, and others. As the project develops, we will also approach
television broadcasters in Europe and the US.
8. the equipment, supply, service, travel, and other costs you expect to incur
Here is a list of some of the costs that we expect to incur during the research
phase of this project:
a. $2,000 to pay an archival footage researcher to track down footage pertaining to
Esperanto in European and US archives. $1,500 to pay for several viewing reels
of relevant archival footage.
b. $3,000 to pay for travel in order to meet with several people about this project—
both “experts” as well as people who are doing noteworthy things with Esperanto.
This would involve some domestic and international travel.
c. $5,500 to pay for two people (including a proficient Esperanto speaker) to travel
to Europe to do research at one or two of the following libraries: the Hector
Hodler Library in Rotterdam, the International Esperanto Museum in Vienna, and
the library of the Esperanto Association of Great Britain in London.
d. $7,000 to pay for three people (including a camera-person) to attend the 2007
World Esperanto Congress and film interviews and other material there.
9. the minimum amount of direct support that you would need to receive in order to
conduct the research, and a proposed schedule for the payment of direct support
Clearly, the research for this project is going to cost more than $10,000. It is an
uphill battle funding any documentary film, and because Esperanto is not widely known,
this project might be more difficult to fund than many. So, receiving the full amount from
the Esperantic Studies Foundation would be extremely decisive in helping us to move
ahead with developing this project. In addition, it has been our experience that support
from a humanities-based foundation is beneficial for the overall funding process.
If we were to receive a grant from the Esperantic Studies Foundation, it would be best for
us to receive the money in two payments—perhaps one payment towards the end of this
year in order to pay for a specific set of expenses, and then second installment in the
spring of 2007, to pay for a subsequent group of additional expenses.
10. the period of time during which you expect to conduct the research
We anticipate that we will continue to research and develop this project through
the middle of 2007. We plan to film extensively at the 2007 Universala Kongreso in
Japan and continue filming through the end of next year. We will edit the film in 2008
and be finished and ready to premier it in January 2009.
11. if applicable, the amount or proportion of support, if any, that the institution with
which you are affiliated would require as compensation for its indirect costs in hosting
your research
12. the names and addresses (including Internet mail addresses and telephone numbers)
of at least three persons who are qualified to attest to your qualities as a researcher
1. Shari Frilot – programmer, Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Institute
8530 Wilshire Blvd., 3rd Floor
Beverly Hills, CA 90211-3114
Tel: 310.360.1981
[email protected]
2. Ruby Lerner – CEO/President, The Creative Capital Foundation
Creative Capital Foundation
65 Bleecker Street, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10012
[email protected]
3. Ron Mann – independent documentary filmmaker
Sphinx Productions
24 Mercer Street
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5V 1H3
Tel: 416.971-9131
[email protected]