The much anticipated film La Mission by San Francisco native Peter Bratt has already put the Mission District on the map across the country with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and Missionistas are anxious to see it when it opens Thursday at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

But, La Mission isn’t the only film that will showcase the landscapes and culture of the Mission District community at this year’s festival.

Making its world premiere is the documentary Speaking in Tongues by husband-and-wife team Marcia Jarmel and  Ken Schneider.

As one of the main locations in the film, the Mission becomes a backdrop for the directors to address a pressing yet often unrecognized question behind the national immigration debate: language immersion in schools.

The film follows four students from San Francisco, each learning a new language for very different reasons.

The film shows fifth grader Jason Patiño, a first-generation Mexican-American in the Mission, as he navigates a Spanish dual-immersion program at Buena Vista Elementary. Throughout the documentary you see Patiño’s pull toward English and his risk of losing Spanish, the only language his immigrant father Jose speaks.

Jason and Jose Patino
Jason and Jose Patiño.

At the same time, Kelly, a second-generation Chinese-American girl learning Cantonese, is able to reclaim her culture and a relationship with her great-grandmother. It’s a relationship even her own parents—who know little Cantonese—cannot have.

And just past the Mission in Potrero Hill, an African-American kindergartner named Durrell learns Mandarin well enough to talk to elder Chinese women in a department store and order noodles in a Chinatown restaurant.

The film focuses on the personal experiences of the students and their capacity to build relationships in their discovery of a second language.

The film only briefly touches on the ugly politics of the English-only movement, showing a YouTube clip of Ron Unz—the man responsible for ending bilingual education in California with Proposition 227 in 1998. Instead, it presents the concrete concerns of bicultural families such as that reflected by a Latino father in the film who is concerned his child needs more English instruction in the classroom.

In San Francisco, where more than 41 percent of kindergartners are considered English-language learners, the possibility for all students to be bilingual and bicultural is not far from a reality. In 2006 the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution to offer bilingual education for all students by the year 2023. The district has already developed a multilingual master plan that offers a path for students to graduate from the SFUSD fluent in English and one other language.

Mission Loc@l talked to director Marcia Jarmel about her film.

Directors Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider.

Why did you decide to focus on San Francisco?
“San Francisco has a very long history with language and education since the mid ’70s. The landmark Supreme Court Case Lau v Nichols that created the mandate that kids have a right to learn in a language they understand took place in San Francisco when Superintendent of Schools Nichols was taken to court by a group of immigrant Chinese families. [This civil rights case established equal education opportunity for non-English speakers across the nation.] Also, San Francisco is the only urban school district in the country to pass a resolution that says they want bilingualism to be a part of the public education system.”

In the film you present bilingualism as an asset. Do you consider yourself an immersion program advocate?
“I am an immersion program parent. My two kids go to a Chinese immersion school at Alice Fong Yu, one of the schools in the film. We were meeting different types of kids and watching what happened to our own kids as a result of this schooling  experience. We are English speakers in our home but this experience opened up a gateway to understanding and cross-cultural communication. I believe that with bilingualism your horizons are much bigger and you’re much more equipped to function in a global world.”

There is also a short film in the festival called Immersion that examines a 10-year-old Mexican immigrant who speaks no English and his struggle to fit in at his new school in California. (Parts were also filmed in the Mission) Why is this issue of language instruction so important right now?
“We now have an administration that is much more open to the idea of bilingualism. Also, people are recognizing the reality of the changing demographics. We have large immigrant communities not only near border towns and urban cities but also all over the country. Experts say that by the year 2025, 30 percent of students in public school won’t speak English when they start kindergarten, so there is a pressing question of how to integrate theses students into the communities.”

Why did you decide to follow Jason at Buena Vista?

Jason in class at Buena Vista

“We first saw Jason in a San Francisco Opera performance [a scene shown in the movie] and we were amazed that a kid who came into kindergarten knowing no English was now in fifth grade, and was comfortable enough in his English to perform comedy in front of an audience. He was very charming. We also saw in his dad that he had a story to tell and wanted to communicate it.”

Mission Movies  Screenings in the Festival
La Mission

Thurs., April 23, 7pm. Advanced tickets sold out.

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. 415.621.6120.; Afterparty: 9:30pm. Bruno’s, 2389 Mission St. 415.643.5200.

Sat., April 25, 12:15pm, and Sun., May 3, 9pm.
$12.50. Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post St. 415.929.4650.

Speaking in Tongues
Sun., April 26, 3:15pm; Sat., May 2, 11:45am and 3:30pm; and Thurs., May 7, 2:30pm. $12.50. Free public panel May 2, 5:30pm. Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post St. 415.929.4650.

San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 23-May 7.

Follow Us

Join the Conversation


  1. Saludos sede Texas! I’m a bilingual teacher in Houston, Texas. Will these documentaries be distributed nation-wide? They sound very interesting & I’d like to see them. The topic is relevant in the Southwest also. Thanks for drawing attention to this poignant issue. Gracias!

    votes. Sign in to vote
Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *