Film Ab!: A personal report on the Zebra Poetry Film Festival 2018

ARRIVAL

September is coming to an end and the falling temperatures leave north-east England sharp but bright. I am on a train from my home town in Northumberland en route to Münster in the German province of Westphalia. The 2018 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival awaits at the end of my long train ride: three days of poetry and film in a city reaching summer’s end. It is a good time of the year for poems, I think, and a good time of the year for films.

My excitement is tinged with the knowledge that this may be my last visit to the continent as a fully-fledged citizen of the EU. I’ve always wanted to visit ZEBRA. It seems to be an important place for poetry and film but when one of my films screened here four years ago, I couldn’t afford to come. I’m expecting an international affair: a reminder that, regardless of who is playing games with our borders and our nationhood, people will get together with others to write poems and make films. I am heartened by the fact that the very act of making a poetry film defies and challenges creative and political borders.

As I trundle my way through France and Belgium, I reflect on how the poetry film community is naturally collaborative. It needs more than the single artist in order to exist. That’s not to say that a person can’t make a poetry film on their own – I have done this and many of the films at the festival will surely be author made – but rather that if everyone worked in isolation, as much of the UK’s mainstream poetry world does, the world of poetry film would not be so rich and diverse. Part of this seems inherent in the medium: the juxtaposition gap often works best with two other-thinking minds. It sits at an intersection between several worlds: those of poetry, film-making, television, experimental art, music, sound art and artist’s moving image. Arguably, the poem is the only essential ingredient because without it, the form does not exist.

ZEBRA Festival runs from Thursday evening through to Sunday evening. My train pulls in late on Thursday evening so I miss the opening ceremony and head straight to my Airbnb in the city’s quiet, affluent and leafy suburbs. The next day I set out on foot to the festival venue, Münster’s Schloßtheater. I arrive there late on Friday afternoon after a walk into the city through the woodlands that skirt the Aasee, a picturesque lake and park full of cyclists and groups of chattering school children.

Schloßtheater is a friendly, 1950s art deco venue busy with locals and festival visitors. My first task is to pick up my accreditation lanyard from the festival desk in the foyer and then I settle down, nursing a coffee at a table in the theatre’s street café. On the train I had read Annelyse Gelman’s review of her first visit here and as I plot a path through the various screenings on offer I am aware of her advice not to overwhelm myself with too many films. I’ve experienced this before at literary festivals, where reading after reading tires the brain until it becomes difficult to engage with the work in any meaningful way. Poems demand a particular sort of attention.

The films are screening in blocks of around ten poetry films, which are either part of one of the festival’s prize competitions or part of the curated side programme. Some of this side programme revolves around the festival’s main themes (this year they are The USA and Spoken Word) and some of it is organised into five thematically-linked blocks under the title Prisma. There are other screenings, readings and discussions too: the results of a series of hip hop poetry film workshops made in collaboration with local young people, a panel discussion on the disadvantages for women in the poetry film and wider film worlds and the premiere of the poems submitted to this year’s festival poem competition. I pick out seven blocks on Friday and Saturday in the hope that this will give me a broad spectrum of the films at ZEBRA without burning me out before I catch a train back to the UK on Sunday.

As the time for my first screening of the festival approaches, the café begins to buzz with an interesting mix of film-makers and poets from all over the world. Thankfully, ZEBRA has neither the hard-sell atmosphere of a film festival nor the tribalistic feel of a poetry festival. People are approachable and friendly and before long I’ve met several poets and film-makers, some of whom are new to me and some of whom I have already met virtually through the online community. Poetry film is rare insofar as it affords much more prominence to the writer than other forms of film. At ZEBRA, poet and film-maker are given equal billing. My first impressions are a confirmation that the symbiosis at the medium’s heart cultivates a presumed harmony between these two separate worlds.

SOME OF THE FILMS

Animation was big at the festival with films ranging from the highly polished productions made for French TV as part of the En sortant de l’école series through Georges Schwizbegel’s stunning (and wordless) painted rendition of Goethe’s classic poem Erlkönig to Amhed Saleh’s moving stop-motion animation Ayny – My Second Eye, which dealt with the disturbing story of a family displaced by war. I think one of the reasons animation works so well when combined with poems is that it opens up the possibilities for the impossible: an essential attribute of a strong poem. Anna Eijsbout’s silhouette animation of Neil Gaiman’s Hate for Sale, which picked up the prize for ‘Best Film for Tolerance’, is a good example of animation’s ability to employ the impossible in a way that would be very difficult to achieve through other means.

Several of the animated films didn’t take full advantage of this aspect of the medium and merely visually represented the content of the poem on screen. For me the most successful films (animated or otherwise) were those that went beyond mere representation towards abstraction or a suggested narrative leading me into an unexpected reading of the poem. Noch am Leben from Anita Lester was a good example of how a film-maker can reach beneath the surface of the poem and enhance it through the use of moving images and sound.

Interestingly, in this example the film and the poem were both made by Lester and I wonder how I would have responded to the poem outside the context of the film. I also wonder whether this is at all relevant as the poetry film worked for me in its own right. With this film, like with many others that I found myself particularly lost in, it felt as if both poem and film needed each other to exist.

In the screening blocks I saw, the majority of the films were highly polished and had access to budgets that were way beyond my wildest dreams. I had expected to see more experimental, low budget films from film-makers and poets that I knew. This is not necessarily a criticism of the selection committee’s choices. Perhaps it is more a realisation on my part that up to now I have subconsciously sought out work that fits into the same niche as the poetry films I have been involved in making myself.

Of course, there were several films that I had seen before that were a delight to see screening at the festival (a good poetry film keeps on giving after all). I hadn’t seen Kate Sweeney and Anna Woodford’s Work (although I knew the poem on the page). The weaving of Sweeney’s Post-it animation with Woodford’s words reminded me how important it is to have a strong poem for a poetry film to be truly effective.

The Focus USA block deserves a mention for its political veracity alone. Caroline Rumley’s Shoes without Feet brought home the devastating chaos of Charlottesville.

Lisa Seidenberg’s America touched on Charlottesville too, remixing Gertrude Stein’s 1929 poem with collaged footage and drums to not make sense in a good way.

Many of the American films I saw across the festival came from the Motionpoems series. They are well produced and slick, sometimes to devastating effect as in How to Raise a Black Child, Seyi Peter-Thomas’ narrative adaptation of Courtney Lamar-Charleston’s thought-provoking poem.

AFTERTHOUGHTS

My overwhelming memory of ZEBRA will be of a well run and friendly festival that showcases a diverse range of poetry films. I was exposed to films that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, particularly the bigger budget films not available online or those films in languages that I don’t understand. The presenters for each block of films had done their homework, introducing each film by talking about techniques, the film-makers and the poems in a way that enhanced my viewing of the films. The little pauses in between each film for these introductions felt necessary in order to absorb what had come before. And if the film-maker or poet was present, we were also treated to a short Q&A after the film, which further enhanced the experience.

From my first block of films at the festival through to my last, I was struck by the magic of the cinema. I am used to viewing poetry films online, generally on my laptop through vimeo or youtube (and of course via movingpoems.com!). I often screen my own films in galleries or in little projector rooms at literary festivals. There’s something particularly exciting about the cinema though: the way it holds your attention through the lighting, the sound and the imposing presence of the screen. As David Lynch so eloquently puts it in ‘Curtains Up’: “It’s so magical, I don’t know why, to go into a theatre and have the lights go down, it’s very quiet and then the curtains start to open and you go into a world.”

It wouldn’t seem right not to acknowledge something raised in Marc Neys’ judges report on the 2016 festival. I couldn’t help but think that more poets and film-makers would have been there if they had been supported financially in order to attend. I know that it is difficult to raise funds for festivals such as this but I wonder if there is leeway for some of the prize funds to be redirected towards a travel grant distributed on the basis of financial need? It would have been great to have seen more of the film-makers and poets there. As a freelance artist with three little mouths to feed, I must choose carefully which unpaid flights of madness I indulge in. Having said that, there are plenty of cheap Airbnbs in Münster and according to the online guidebooks couchsurfing is big there. Free tickets for the screening for accredited poets and film-makers was an unexpected bonus too. For those of us in Europe at least, the cost of travel shouldn’t be too prohibitive and if you are at all interested in the genre of poetry film then there is a lot to be gained from a trip to ZEBRA. When the next festival is announced, I know that I will be counting my pennies and trying to find some way of making the journey back to Münster.

Stevie Ronnie

Stevie Ronnie

Stevie Ronnie (website) is a UK-based freelance artist and writer with a background in computing. His work crosses art forms to produce pieces for exhibition, publication, installation, screening and/or performance. He has received two prestigious MacDowell fellowships for his interdisciplinary works and a Northern Promise Award for his poetry. Stevie has been involved in the making of several poetry films as both a poet and a filmmaker, with work screening at festivals including Zebra Poetry Film Festival, Monstra, Kinofilm, Filmpoem, dotdotdot Festival, Juteback Poetry Film Festival, Ó Bheal International Poetry Film Festival and others. His experiments with poetry and film have also been shown in galleries around the world as an integral part of exhibitions and performances of his other works.

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