Poto and Cabengo

When you spend your days eyeballs-deep in movie and television data, you see many turds and few gems. When I say “turds,” of course, I refer to the thousands of shitty horror movies and romantic comedies that somehow get made while perfectly poignant and amazing screenplays sit untouched. I’m not bitter. But back to the turd/gem idea. Whilst sifting through those turds (what a disgusting image!), you come across those gems from time to time, and you latch onto them. And that’s exactly what happened when I encountered Poto and Cabengo in my database perusal.

The Wikipedia article alone piqued my interest in the movie. Back in the 70s, two twin girls began to speak their own language, and their phenomenal behavior turned into this incredible, over-hyped media frenzy. Like, if this had happened now, they’d have their own TLC show. But the very unfortunate thing is that it happened 30ish years ago, and they happened to be born into a struggling family, and that family happened to have a very weird language situation going on. The father spoke regular English but was rarely around, the mother spoke a weird pidgin-esque form of English with Southern and German twangs but was also rarely around, and the grandmother spoke only German but was around all the time. No wonder these two girls came up with their own way of communicating with each other. They had no one else to talk to and no one to teach them how to talk! It’s really quite simple.

In fact, “It’s really quite simple” kind of sums up how this whole documentary should have been approached, but wasn’t at all. The filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Gorin, didn’t really film enough material, so much of what we see is a black screen with audio playing over it. He also makes repetitive use of old family photos, random stills from the footage he already shot, and pull quotes that sometimes make no sense in the context of the study. The whole thing could have been an incredible, in-depth, and potentially helpful investigation into the lives of these children and this family, and a supplement to the hours of therapy they were already receiving. Instead, however, it seemed like passive observation, a voyeuristic look that glossed over the real problem.

Of course, it probably didn’t help that the answers to the “big” questions everyone was asking–What are the girls saying to each other? Do they have developmental problems or are they mentally retarded?–were both underwhelming and sad. It turns out that their secret language wasn’t so secret after all. It was a weird, inconsistent hybrid of all the sounds they had been bombarded with their whole lives. Gradually, they grew out of using it, attended different schools, learned English, and overcame the “language barrier.” Well, to an extent. We’ll never really know what happened to them unless someone else decides to do a follow-up; Wikipedia claims they have minimum wage-level jobs somewhere, but for their sake I hope Wikipedia is wrong.

Even though this documentary was hasty, holey, and extremely brief (barely 75 minutes), I’m still glad I watched it. As sad and incomprehensible as their story is, Poto, a.k.a. Grace Kennedy, and Cabengo, a.k.a. Virginia, certainly make you think about your own language acquisition and childhood interactions. What if you only had your sister to talk to? What if she looked just like you? How would you communicate with her? It’s dumbfounding.

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One comment

  1. Jon · June 25, 2012

    I don’t know that we can criticize Gorin for his use of the black screen. I hadn’t read anywhere that that was due to his failure to film material. Instead, I got the sense that the black screen was there in order to bring forth the sound, and make that the sole focus of the scene. This was quite novel, I thought. In “Poto…”, we got – you’re right – not a heavy, in-depth look at this individual family, but a genius film that uses this family as a mirror to the nation. Gorin, son of a fairly Marxist tribe, is one to do this: use the extremely small to speak to the extremely large. This was where he and his friend, Godard, ultimately diverged. And I couldn’t be happier they did.

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