The story of ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was only published in 1943. In those 76 years, it has become one of the most important books in history - sure, it doesn’t have the global appeal of flying wizards or fifty shades of kinkiness, but its relevance goes far beyond popularity. As a novella with child-like musings, its simple story with deeper meanings has allowed it to be adapted into over 300 languages, making it the most translated book in the world next to the Bible. Some of those languages are on the verge of dying out, making ‘The Little Prince’ an invaluable resource in keeping those cultures alive.
‘The Miracle of the Little Prince’ documents four of these languages - Tamazight from the Sahara, Sami on the border of Norway and Finland, the ancient Aztec language of Nawat from El Salvador, and Tibetan. Looking intently at the people that were passionate enough to translate the novella, we find out why the story is important to them and what it means to their culture.
Marjoleine Boonstra is the director and cinematographer of ‘The Miracle of the Little Prince’, and its success is largely her doing. As much a story of words, this is a story of pictures - with imagery that could have fitted perfectly into ‘Baraka’ or ‘Samsara’, the cinematography is beautiful, offering a very personal glimpse of the isolated regions we visit. The editing is slow and precise, dwelling on shots and scenarios so the audience can thoroughly absorb them. We witness the daily lives of the Berber people in Morocco and the hard-working women of El Salvador - people living a simpler way of life, their existence tied to their environment and everything within it.
These languages cling to existence with great fragility, and are diminishing by the generation. Nawat is spoken by less than 300 people - most of whom are now between 80 and 90 years old - after most native speakers were massacred by the Spaniards in 1932. Similarly, Tamazight and Sami weren’t taught in schools - and in the latter case, was banned from being written or spoken - when ‘The Little Prince’s’ translators were studying. Although Tibet is now “autonomous”, it’s still law to use Chinese rather than Tibetan for all official meetings and events. As much as this documentary is a glance at these languages and cultures, it also captures the beauty of their existence and the frailty of these places and their people.
The focus on the documentary itself is also on the parallels between ‘The Little Prince’ and the lives of those who have translated it. The story is lauded for its innocence, as the Prince visits a foreign place with great curiosity and without judgment, a reflection of the goodness of the human spirit. The Berber identify with the desert setting from the story, but also much more - they are an ancient culture, one of the oldest civilisations in the world, yet have never known warfare. We witness the book being translated by three female speakers of Nawat, as they and linguist Jorge Lemus attempt to preserve a language that has almost been wiped out - a challenge with such an ancient dialect that no longer grows and adapts, and doesn’t even have a word for “rose”, a prominent element in the story. Tibetan translator Tashi Kyi sadly explains, “Language defines a person’s personality. It’s difficult to separate language from identity.” She and story editor and writer Noyontsang Lamokyab left Tibet and can never return; now living in exile in Paris, they teach hundreds of people back in Tibet the traditional language using WeChat.
These languages cling to existence with great fragility, and are diminishing by the generation.
Although the gentle pacing is one of the most important elements of the documentary, it can at times also be its downfall. Using little music and no narration, ‘The Miracle of the Little Prince’ relies on the sound on nature for its soundtrack and the tales of the translators to tell its story. This can leave some sequences feeling sparse, and without a little research is likely to leave most viewers unclear as to precisely where in the world these cultures are located.
“Language is the carrier of the culture, of the tradition and of the history of the people who speak it,” says Jorge Lemus. ‘The Miracle of the Little Prince’ looks at the cultures whose story ‘The Little Prince’ belongs to, and offers a time capsule of their dying languages and civilisations. With great care, it looks at the relationship that these people have with their environment and everything living within it. To quote the story itself, “Planet Earth is a big place” - and this is a reminder that its diversity and the undiscovered are what make it so special.