Filmmaker explores humor in Low German culture
There’s a stereotype floating around that filmmaker Orlando Braun doesn’t like. The stiff Mennonite farmer who traded his sense of a humor for a new seed company hat just isn’t true, and Braun wants to prove it.
Now a director and producer in Winnipeg, Man., Braun was born in Paraguay and spent some of his childhood there before his family moved to Manitoba. He grew up speaking Plautdietsch (Low German) and feels humor is intrinsic to Mennonite culture.
“By seeing if I can bring people in on the joke, from the inside, we’re exploring humor in ourselves as Mennonites, seeing if we can bring other North Americans along with us,” Braun said.
His company, Prairie Boy Productions, is about half done with a documentary digging into the roots of humor in Low German Mennonite culture. That Mennonite Joke follows comedian Matt Falk as he meets authors, historians and entertainers.
“He’s at a stage in his career where he’s adding to his act,” Braun said. “He does some Mennonite jokes, and he needs to expand that.”
Falk’s journey of discovery not only provides a linear path for a story but also an entry point for the audience. Growing up at Niverville (Man.) Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation, Falk heard his parents and grandparents speaking Plautdietsch, but he didn’t understand much.
The language has been carried, mostly unchanged, by Mennonites of Dutch origin on migrations to Russia, Poland and Ukraine, and then on to North and South America. It is still spoken in colonies in South America and Mexico, as well as on the plains of Canada and the U.S.
It is an old language, predating even English and High German, and is beloved by its adherents.
“With Plautdietsch it’s just as interesting as Yiddish and is sing-songy,” he said. “If you tell it in a certain way, it is interesting to the audience as an outside observer. If you get too specific though, you lose them. . . .
“The job of the comedian is to bring people in on the joke, and this documentary is working on bringing others in on the joke. I have some jokes that only work on a heavily Mennonite population, but after this documentary, everyone will get it.”
Funnier in Plautdietsch
A big challenge for Plautdietsch speakers is the formidable task of explaining to non-speakers why the language is so funny.
“A lot of it is based on context,” Braun said. “It’s hard to translate just by words. Verbatim replacing with English doesn’t translate very well. You have to go into why that word is being used in place of something else.”
The film will use an animator visually depicting jokes told in Low German with the help of subtitles.
The animation is key because much of Low German humor is based on a breadth of vocabulary choices not available in English. It was — and in some places still is — an informal language spoken in barns and homes, reserving High German for church services. The roots of the language stretch back centuries to a people of low social status who lived in floodplains.
“They have a lot of words for water, humidity, wetness, dripping, and then they use those words to describe people and things, often with these peasant terms,” Braun said. “Others just think that the vocabulary sounds funny, which really adds to the humor, because it’s not a particularly romantic language.”
At first, the notion that something could be funny just because of the way it sounds really bothered Falk “because I take humor very seriously, and . . . that wasn’t good enough for me.
“But when you hear them speak it, you smile because it sounds funny. Even if it’s a lame poop joke, it can be even funnier, because there’s a punch line.”
But there’s more to humor than poop jokes and punch lines, even in Plautdietsch. Mennonites have a history of being outsiders, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not.
“I think persecution makes people funny because you are on the fringes of society,” Falk said, making one of several parallels to Jewish culture and humor. “It’s hard to be a comedian when you are just like everyone else. You want someone who thinks differently than you, or acts differently than you. That’s entertaining to watch.”
Discovering a heritage
Taking such an intentional look at his own heritage has been an education, informing his act. Falk has interviewed writers like Miriam Toews and Armin Wiebe; Corny Rempel, a radio host who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator; and Low German comedy musical act 3molPlaut.
“Matt’s curiosity gets piqued more and more, the more people we talk to. People are bringing really valid and fascinating stories and ideas,” Braun said.
The conclusion of the film will be Falk’s first comedy special, taking place later this year.
“When he delivers that joke, you will be there with him, and you were part of that process,” Braun said. “Whether you are Mennonite or not, you’ll get it.”
The 30-minute film is being financed by Manitoba Telecom Services and Bravo Canada. Braun plans to also get it into festivals after he delivers it to those companies June 30. There is a chance the U.S. Bravo cable network could pick it up. He also envisions a theatrical route that would include theaters or groups booking a screening with Falk doing standup in person.
As for Falk, he’ll be releasing his comedy special by the end of summer, in formats including DVD and iTunes.
More information about That Mennonite Joke is available at prairieboyproductions.com.
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