My first introduction to poetry in film was the opening shot of Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, Wim Wenders, 1987). The film starts with a narration the first few lines from Peter Handke's poem, "Lied Vom Kindsein" ("Song of Childhood"), while a hand holding a pen moves slowly across a sheet of paper, writing lines from the poem.
I didn't know then that I was watching a video poem, but it left a strong impression on me, one that lasts to this day. "Song of Childhood" weaves in and out of the movie, providing an alternative to the main plot, a love story about an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman.
One of the most striking things about the movie is how it evokes a sense of place: Berlin in the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall stood between East and West Germany, a painful reminder of the Cold War. In writing this month's column, I looked for poetry films that also had that sense of place, ones that pulled me out of my everyday life and transported me somewhere far away.
I selected the following nine poetry films using the following criteria: first, the native language of the poet or filmmaker had to be the language used in narration, and second, the country of the poet or filmmaker had to be prominent in the video.
Here, then, I give you my list of nine poetry videos that passed the test:
FRISIAN: "The Northern Land" by Richard van der Laan, based on the poem by Frisian poet Durk van der Ploeg. This piece is moody, nostalgic and a little eerie; the lilt of the Frisian language creates its own soundtrack:
CHINA/TAIWAN: "They are There But I am Not" by Ye Mimi. The poem, whispered in a dreamy feminine voice, juxtaposes scenes from everyday life in China:
FRANCE: "Cet Amour" ("This Love") by Jacques Prevert. This video, shot in black and white with a soundtrack of Erik Satie's piano music, takes the viewer on an intimate journey, complete with café au lait and Marlboros:
ARGENTINA: "Ars Poetica" by Jorge Luis Borges. Guitar, beaches and cityscapes; crosses, slums and old cars; a soccer game and the tango combine to create a South American postcard. Watch closely for the waterfalls:
WALES: "Welsh Landscape" by R.S. Thomas. "You cannot live in the present, at least not in Wales." Stone ruins and barren hillsides contrast with lush green farms and the mournful voice of the poet, reciting his famous poem:
ICELAND: "Outside the Circle" by Stein Steinarr. This must be one of the strangest landscapes on Earth, made even more unsettling by the heavily altered voice of the narrator:
UK: "Danebury Ring" by Tim Cummings. An Iron Age fort stars in this video, along with the countryside of Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset:
CANADA: "Directional Geometry" by Janet Marie Rogers. A field of sunflowers and the blue sky might sound simple, but Rogers's poem reveals unexpected insights:
INDIA/PAKISTAN: "So Heddan So Hoddan" ("Like Here Like There"): the Sufi Poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. This is a trailer for a film about how life has changed for the people of the Kachchh region of the India/Pakistan border. The people keep poetry alive with songs of "deep grief that takes one to unknown and mysterious terrains:"
These nine poetry videos transport us out of our daily lives. Each one filled me with longing for places I have never been. I felt sadness for the disappearance of Frisian, joy at the nodding heads of the sunflowers in a Canadian field, and an inexplicable nostalgia for Argentina.
Thanks to Dave Bonta's Moving Poems we can travel the world via video poetry.