The above video offers a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of jury proceedings for a film award. Gesticulating happens. Arms are folded across chests. We punch the air.
That’s me in the center, looking more central to the proceedings of the 2nd Weimar Poetry Film Award than I actually was, joined by artist and filmmaker Ebele Okoye (who shot and edited the video) and local writer Stefan Petermann. All three of us had experience in making poetry films; in fact, both my fellow jurors have contributed to films that have taken the Ritter Sport Film Prize for German-language poetry film at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival, Ebele in 2010 and Stefan in 2016. So I might have been the least qualified of the bunch, with my determinedly amateur approach to videopoetry. But of course I am a blogger, so whatever I may lack in expertise I make up for in opinions — many, many opinions.
We hadn’t met before this past week, but fortunately we hit it off well. In fact, as we re-watched the films one by one in our secret conclave, it turned out that we looked for similar qualities in poetry films and approached them with the same kind of openness. Which is not to say that we weren’t critical, simply that we weren’t nit-picky, and attempted to approach each work on its own terms. In other words — for all you Paul Ricoeur fans out there — we did not so much practice a hermeneutics of suspicion as a hermeneutics of faith.
That said, it was usually a single, significant demerit that allowed us to rule out most of the films and narrow the field of top contenders. In one case, we felt a film didn’t go quite far enough in exploring the potentials of its conceit; in another case, we felt a film went a little too far and basically jumped the shark.
But of course the main job of winnowing had been done in advance by the poetry film award organizers (and editors of Poetryfilmkanal) Aline Helmcke and Guido Naschert, who also joined us in the conclave to answer questions about the films as we watched them. They told us they’d striven to program a stylistically varied selection of films that each pushed the envelope in some sense, and for the most part I think they succeeded. I might have wished for a somewhat larger selection — there were only 16 films out of the more than 200 submitted — but it was an unavoidable situation, because the poetry film screening was just a part of a larger film festival, the Backup festival, which was otherwise focused on films by university students from around the world. Aside from the two screenings of the prize contenders, Guido and Aline had arranged several colloquiums, a presentation of Norwegian poetry films, and a screening of the 2016 Lab/p Poetry in Motion films (which were in fact student productions), so I felt richly rewarded for my time there… to say nothing of the pleasure of making new friends and catching up with old ones.
Aline and Guido left us when it came time to deliberate, but we first sought their advice on whether to split the prize between two or more winners or stick with one. They pointed out that the main purpose of such a prize is to send a message about what we think poetry film should/could be, and the message could be diluted a bit if the prize were split. We found this persuasive.
So then the task became to decide what values we wanted to prioritize. What you’re mostly seeing in the above video is us hashing out whether we wanted to be swayed by the political content of the films or stick with pure aesthetics. We gravitated toward the latter, while recognizing that aesthetics are never really pure but are always colored by one’s outlook and ideology to some extent. I argued that it wasn’t our primary job to send a message about current events, and Ebele and Stefan went along with that.
We were able to narrow the field relatively quickly to the two films that we loved unreservedly, one for its appeal to the head and the other for its appeal to the heart. The former was an experimental film called Standard Time by Hanna Slak and Lena Reinhold, based on a poem by the Berlin-based poet Daniela Seel, and it was this film that we felt deserved the prize because of its riskier exploration of what a poetry film could be. Unfortunately, it’s not on the web quite yet, but here’s what we wrote about it:
Standard Time is a timeless, self-referential meditation on the power of communication to transmute and, at times, distort. Its flawless blend of text, sound and images suggests a worldview both deeply rooted and universal, shamanistic and apophatic. It does what all great poems should do in suggesting more than it says and leaving the viewer’s mind abuzz with creative energy and new ideas. Addressing the poetic possibilities of time as it does, it can almost be seen as a film about poetry film itself.
But experimental techniques aren’t a good fit for every poem, and we felt that the general excellence of the spoken-word poetry film Heartbreak by Dave Tynan with Irish poet Emmet Kirwan deserved a Special Mention. Sure, it’s the most conservative sort of poetry film: basically a narrative short with a rhyming, occasionally on-screen narrator. But the sheer visceral impact of the film is extraordinary, and yeah, we loved the political message. I quoted our statement when I shared it at the main site, so I won’t repeat it here, but you can find both statements and more on the official Winners page at Poetryfilmkanal.
This was my first time as a major contest judge, though I’ve helped select minor literary prizes in the past. I was afraid we might have to settle on a compromise candidate, as is often said to happen, but I guess we got lucky. More than that, the whole festival was a great deal of fun, and I’m grateful to Guido and Aline for choosing such a great program, and for their immense dedication and hard work at the magazine as well, all in the service of advancing the cause of poetry film. Whatever else one might say about contests and awards — and I’ve been as critical as any of the whole culture of literary prizes — they are a great way to focus public attention on a still somewhat obscure but rapidly developing genre.
See also Marc Neys’ view from the 2016 ZEBRA jury.