Esperanto Language Blog

Esperanto documentary: The Universal Language Posted by on Jan 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

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Today, Sam Green returns to us with answers to burning questions about the first documentary about Esperanto from a third party: The Universal Language. In case you missed our last interview about his previous live documentary, you can read it at Interview about Utopia in Four Movements. I can’t wait for The Universal Language to be released, but in the meantime, we can at least enjoy the tidbits of info we get from him in this interview!

Filming at the Yokohama Universala Kongreso

What is your target audience for this movie?

I’m hoping to make a documentary film that will resonate with both Esperanto speakers and non-speakers alike. That can be a bit of a challenge because, obviously, the two audiences will approach the film quite differently.

For Esperanto speakers, I hope that the documentary will be meaningful. As far as I know, there’s never been a significant documentary about Esperanto before. In the several years I’ve spent working on this project, I’ve unearthed a lot of great archival photos and footage. I’ve also attended several World Congresses and have interviewed many Esperanto speakers. Obviously, not all Esperantists are alike, and there’s a wide range of experiences and sensibilities within the Esperanto movement. I’ve tried hard to make a documentary that is as fair and as accurate as possible.

For a non-Esperanto speaking audience, I hope that the film will raise awareness of the language and encourage people to take Esperanto seriously. As you know, when Esperanto appears in the media it is often as a joke or novelty. I see my film as part of a recent spate of projects that look at the language in a serious manner. Arika Okrent’s book would be a good example of this. Ultimately, I feel strongly that “The Universal Language” will be good for Esperanto. Several years ago, I made a film about a radical political group in the US called the Weather Underground and the documentary went a long way in changing the way the group was perceived. I am hoping that this film will have a similar impact.

Where will it be shown?

I am going to finish the film in early 2011 and start to screen the film at film festivals around the world. I’m assuming that the film will also be broadcast on television in 2011, both in the United States but also internationally as well. I will eventually start to distribute the film on DVD through Sam Green and also probably through iTunes and other online services.

How is it being financed?

I’ve paid for the film mostly through small grants. I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States as well as some funding from other arts organizations. I also received a grant from the Esperantic Studies Foundation.

Why would someone want to finance a film about Esperanto?

It’s a fascinating story and movement, and most non-Esperantists know very little about it.

Why don’t you have the word “Esperanto” in the film’s title?

Coming up with a title is always tricky. With titles, I look for something that is both intriguing in some way and also has a bit of poetry to it. I feel like “The Universal Language” as a phrase evokes the underlying hope and worldview that are a fundamental part of Esperanto. And it sounds good. I didn’t make any kind of conscious decision not to include the word “Esperanto” in the title; this just felt like the best title I could come up with.

What do you yourself think about the idea of Esperanto and its movement?

I learned early on in making films that when you pick a subject, you are going to spend several years immersed in it and thinking about it—it’s damn important that you pick something that you actually like! And so it is with Esperanto. I’m a big fan and very fond of Esperanto and the Esperanto movement. I have long been inspired by what the language represents in terms of a hopefulness and imagination for the future. I’m also interested in how Esperantists have been able to reconcile Zamenhof’s dream for the language with the world we live in today. All of the films I have made have been attempts to try to gain some understanding of the present—the complex moment we find ourselves in. I do think that looking at Esperanto history can give us insights into a broader history of the 20th century and the shadow that that time still casts over us today.

I heard that some Esperanto speakers think that your film Utopia in Four Movements was not enthusiastic enough about Esperanto. After having seen the film, I personally disagree, but some still say it focused on Esperanto as a utopia, not showing much of its practical use. What was your inspiration for making The Universal Language when you’ve already covered Esperanto in your other film, Utopia?

The live documentary and the separate stand-alone documentary I am making about Esperanto are two very separate things, and I can imagine that this might be confusing.

The “live documentary” is called Utopia in Four Movements, and one of the sections of that film is about Esperanto. With Utopia, I look at the history of Esperanto during the 20th century as a kind of metaphor for the rise and fall of a modernist worldview—a great belief in progress, science and rational thinking, and the power of people to make a radically better world. Esperanto and modernism flourished together in the early 20th century. Today, we live in a world where much of that hopefulness and belief is gone. Utopia in Four Movements is an attempt to try to make sense of this very different world today.

My sense is that almost all the Esperanto speakers who have come to see Utopia in Four Movements have reacted positively to the piece. You yourself wrote to me after seeing it that it was “the most moving performance of my life.” There are some people who saw an early excerpt from it online and were critical, but that is not an opinion based on a real sense of the piece.

The “normal” documentary I am in the process of finishing—The Universal Language—is a traditional 30-minute film with interviews and the like. It’s much more of an in-depth history of Esperanto and a portrait of the Esperanto movement today.

It does not look at Esperanto through the lens of utopia. This new film features Renato Corsetti, Humphrey Tonkin, Arika Okrent as well as many other Esperanto speakers. If people want to join the mailing list and receive updates about this documentary and info about how to buy a DVD, they can email me at

Thank you very much for your hard work in spreading the word about Esperanto and I can’t wait to see the movie!

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About the Author: Chuck Smith

I was born in the US, but Esperanto has led me all over the world. I started teaching myself Esperanto on a whim in 2001, not knowing how it would change my life. The timing couldn’t have been better; around that same time I discovered Wikipedia in it’s very early stages and launched the Esperanto version. When I decided to backpack through Europe, I found Esperanto speakers to host me. These connections led me to the Esperanto Youth Organization in Rotterdam, where I worked for a year, using Esperanto as my primary language. Though in recent years I’ve moved on to other endeavors like iOS development, I remain deeply engrained in the Esperanto community, and love keeping you informed of the latest news. The best thing that came from learning Esperanto has been the opportunity to connect with fellow speakers around the globe, so feel free to join in the conversation with a comment! I am now the founder and CTO of the social app Amikumu.


  1. WC:

    Will it be done in Esperanto? Everything I’ve seen about it so far is in English, which leads me to believe the main language spoken in the documentary will be English.

  2. KaGu:-}:

    Enthusiastic about Esperanto?
    There is one reason for learning Esperanto. Make it possible to communicate with people who do not know the languages you already know. An there are quite a lot of such persons. If there is any reason to be enthusiastic it is the fact that it really works, if you really want to learn the language, not just interested due to “it is simple”. The only person that can make the effort worth while to study and use Esperanto is you your self, no organisation or fanatic esperantist will do that for you.
    I have used the language for more than 45 years and know what I am talking about. You decide.

    “Will it be done in Esperanto?” A strange question as I get the impression that it is a film that should inform people who do not understand Esperanto or know what Esperanto is.. My question would be: Will be in Swedish 😉

  3. Betty Chatterjee:

    I can’t wait to see the film either! Thank you for your extremely interesting blog.

  4. Sam Green:

    “The Universal Language” is in both English and Esperanto. Some people are interviewed in English and some in Esperanto. Probably a little more English overall. But the film will have both English and Esperanto subtitles.

  5. José Antonio Vergara:

    Thank you very much for filming this documentary.

    The Esperanto phenomenon, as a deeply human(e) and collective initiative of creation through cooperation (i.e. full of agency, hope, intellectual commitment, beauty, sorrow) deserves to be explored and showed by the eye and heart of an artist.

  6. José Antonio Vergara:

    I wish I’d included the words “enthusiasm” and “joy” in my previous comment, which are usual experiences of people joining this open and egalitarian linguistic community.

    I meant by “sorrow” the pain Zamenhof suffered as a truly peace-loving humanist, because because of pogroms and World War I , and the violent persecutions against Esperanto speakers under Hitler and Stalin.

  7. Kontent Films:

    I am very happy to see there is an interview with Sam Green about his upcoming film, The Universal Language. For anyone who is a fan of his work, we’re giving away 1 FREE copy of the Oscar-nominated documentary, THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, signed by Director Sam Green along with an 8 x 10 mugshot of Bill Ayers.

    More info @:

  8. Ralph Dumain:

    Sam, congratulations on your fine work. I wish I knew where the mystery photo came from.

  9. Darren Brown:

    I looked at the picture in question and noticed that the posters are written in French. The poster near the door reads, “Qu’est-ce que l’Esperanto?” which means in English, “What is Esperanto?”. On the bottom left of the picture it is written “Foire de Paris 1921” which in English means “Paris Fair 1921”. I looked it up on Wikipedia and found the following at, which is translated into English by Google:

    The Paris Fair is an event held at Exhibition Park of Porte de Versailles in Paris since 1923.
    Since 1904 she sailed between the Carreau du Temple, Grand Palais, Champs de Mars, Jardins des Tuileries and the Invalides esplanade. In fact, before that date and for many ages, every year in Paris and in each district, a fair that took place did not mean his name when each trade had its products.
    Following the Great Exhibition of 1900, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris (CCIP) and a number of professional organizations decide to create, in 1903, the Committee of the Paris Exhibition (Association – Law 1901) to organize the first true Paris Fair. It will open its doors March 17, 1904 at Carreau du Temple.
    For its growing success, the Paris Exhibition Committee decided in 1921 to give a fixed place in the event. To do this, he created the holding company of the Parc des Exposition de Paris (SBC) and takes as its place, the land of the cattle market, situated at the Porte de Versailles. The first buildings were opened in 1923. Thus was born the largest park in the French exhibitions (7th European in terms of area and 1 in terms of activity).
    The Paris Fair takes place each year between the last week of April and first week of May and brings together some twenty rooms on three themes: Home , Environment , Welfare , Recreation and cultures of the world.

  10. alonso Soso:

    I would like to now if Sam Green is also an esperantist.
    And, I am looking forward watching the film.

    • Chuck Smith:

      @alonso Soso He’s not, but he’s very sympathetic to the cause. In a way, that’s almost more valuable than if he spoke it himself!

  11. Bernardus:

    This documentary is beautiful. It’s a shame it’s only 30 minutes long.