In this month’s column, I will discuss my impressions of the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin (10/18/12-10/21/12) and share interviews with noted filmmakers and poets. Next month: insights from the colloquium “What Makes a Poetry Film a Poetry Film?”, pros and cons of the festival and prizes, and my own slightly irreverent list of “bests.”
Picture this: four days of short films, all inspired by poems. The Zebra Poetry Film Festival, a feast for the eye and ear, offered an array of exquisite appetizers for the imagination. Zebra is the world’s biggest festival for poetry films, occurring every two years in Berlin, Germany. Although most of the films were from western Europe, the UK, and the USA, the festival also showed work from Poland, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Egypt, Canada, Cambodia, Australia, China, and the Ukraine, to name a few.
Zebra attracts a larger audience with every festival, proving that this young art form is gaining popularity around the world. Many of the filmmakers were present at the festival, and I was able to speak to Marc Neys (aka “Swoon”), who holds the record for number of films screened at the festival; Endre Farkas and Carolyn Marie Souaid, whose film, Blood is Blood, won Best Film for Tolerance; and Kosal Khiev, a spoken-word poet who performed his poem Why I Write (dir. Masahiro Sugano) in a film of the same name, which won Best Poem Performance on Film.
To paraphrase Thomas Wohlfahrt, director of the Literature Workshop of Berlin, the organization responsible for the festival, “We wish to honor the poet, who gets so little appreciation.” In his welcome from the festival program, Dr. Wohlfahrt quotes the French painter Eugene Delacroix: “There is no art without poetry.” Poetry existed long before film, but it didn’t take filmmakers long to see the possibilities in using poems as inspiration: in the 1920s, D.W. Griffith made a movie based on a poem by Robert Browning. Today, many poets make their own films, either alone or with filmmakers, and share them on the Internet to a widening audience.
Watching poetry films as part of an audience is a new experience for me. Before the festival, I had only watched them at home on my computer, and usually alone. Sitting with other people in a dark theater while a series of intense, image-rich films rolled by on the big screen allowed me to examine them critically; for every film, I asked myself these questions: was it interesting? Did it create an alternative world? Was there a social, cultural, emotional, or intellectual message? Did the video enhance or detract from the poem? Was I startled, amazed, frightened or bored?
Endre Farkas and Carolyn Marie Souaid’s Blood is Blood is a film with a clear social message. Based on a book-length poem they wrote together, the video explores the eternal issue of conflict between Jews and Arabs. This is not hypothetical for Farkas and Souaid: he is the son of Hungarian Jews who fled the Holocaust, and she is the daughter of Lebanese and Syrian parents. They live in Montreal. I spoke to Endre and Carolyn at the festival.
“Language is a political issue,” Carolyn said. “It’s deeply connected with survival of the culture. In Blood is Blood, we ask: whose land is this? Who was here first?” Endre added, “There is no dialog about the problems in the Middle East. I think of it as two monologues.” The video, its stark images rendered in black and white, develops a story of two people whose history would appear to allow for only anger between them:
(The above is an excerpt of the full-length video.) The Arab-Jewish conflict is extremely sensitive territory – “People have walked out on us, slamming the door,” Carolyn said; but the project is about communication, and talking about “meaty issues,” to quote Endre. “There is no solution but peace,” he added. “Ultimately, everyone knows that.” Blood is Blood is also a love story: “To say I love you / is to commit high treason,” a line that recalls the tragic love of Romeo and Juliet. Yet, the video, and the partnership between Endre and Carolyn, give us hope that the art arising from conflict will open the door to a resolution.
Kosal Khiev’s Why I Write, the winner of Best Performance in a Poetry Film, is another example of art arising from conflict. Born in Cambodia, raised in the U.S. and arrested at sixteen in a gang fight, Kosal served fourteen years of a sixteen-year sentence, and was released in 2011. Standing in a desolate dirt yard, bare chest and arms covered in tattoos, a red X over his heart, he performs his poem with all the pent-up emotions from his years in prison:
I spoke to Kosal in the lobby of Babylon Theater, where I recognized him from the film. A quiet, unassuming man, he told me what writing meant to him while he was incarcerated: “Writing literally saved my life. I started writing to stay sane. I had so much inside me that needed a way to be said.” One of the most memorable parts of the film is when Kosal recites the names of the prisons that house so many of California’s young men: “Tehachapi, Lancaster, Pelican Bay, Folsom, Soledad…” Kosal is a talented spoken-word artist, in command of the language with rhymes like “cesspool” and “less cool.”
The power of language was also evident in the film Life and Deaf, based on the poem “That’s not all of me.” The film (dir. Eelyn Lee) won the Ritter Sport Prize, and starred a group of deaf teenagers from London. Students Nadeem Islam, 15, and Kayleigh Goacher, 16, answered questions from the audience after their film screened. “It’s every deaf person’s dream to have the chance to talk to other people about what being deaf is like,” Kayleigh stated. Their teacher, Katie Ford, spoke of the next project for the film and the students: a van tour across the U.K. to show the film and spread awareness to the public about deaf people. According to Nadeem, “Deaf people have an easy time expressing themselves. They have so many feelings they want to share. Poetry comes naturally. It helps us communicate.”
Although the film is available only for purchase, you can watch a sample here (click on the video link “WEBCAST – March 2012”):
Here are the winners in the remaining categories (Best Poetry Film, Goethe Film Prize and Best Debut Film):
The winner of the Zebra prize for the Best Poetry Film went to A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation, the creation of German co-directors Martin Wallner and Stefan Leuchtenberg. The animated film stars the voices of Joseph Fiennes and Ian McKellen. Here is a trailer.
The winner of the Goethe Film Prize went to “I come from…” (U.K.), directed by Daniel Lucchesi and Alex Ramseyer. The film is based on Joseph Buckley’s poem “I come from…”. It’s part of a documentary called We are Poets, based in Leeds, U.K.
The German film Heimweg (the way home) won in the Best Debut Film category. Based on the poem “Heimweg” by the German poet Peh, Heimweg uses stop-motion animation by Franziska Otto. This poetry film is one of my personal favorites, but the only version available by link lacks English subtitles:
Two other poetry film festivals, Visible Verse in Canada and Co-Kisser in Minnesota, also took place in October. Visit their websites for more information and some excellent poetry videos:
More highlights from the festival in next month’s column.