I am very excited about my upcoming trip to Berlin for the 6th Zebra Poetry Film Festival. It’s no surprise that Zebra, one of the biggest video poem festivals, occurs in Berlin, one of Europe’s most interesting and vibrant cities.
The festival takes place over four days in October, starting on the 18th with a poetry film workshop for teachers and ending on the 21st with an award ceremony for the festival’s Best Poetry Film. A glance at the 5-page brochure reveals a decidedly international program, with contest entries from 63 countries. And, in case you’re wondering, I do speak some German (but will be grateful for the abundant use of English throughout the festival!)
In its Flashbacks program, Zebra will feature Gerhard Rühm, Austrian artist, musician and video poetry pioneer. Now in his 80s, Rühm began his experiments with literary film, concrete poetry and the intersection of word and image in the 1960s. This video poem by Hubert Sielecki based on Rühm’s poem “Levitation” blends the image of a slowly vanishing cloud with the repetition of words:
This video poem benefits from repeated viewings. Listen carefully to the German narration; the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and German become more and more apparent, as the subtitles make clear.
The following video poem, titled “Ein Lautgedicht,” or “A Phonetic Poem” in English, is another one of Sielecki’s interpretations of Rühm’s poetry:
The stills of black and white trees create a rhythm with the speaker’s phonetic utterances, gradually building tonal qualities in both sound and image. This video requires patience from the viewer; what seems like incoherent babbling eventually makes sense (or it doesn’t – but that’s the point). The roots of dada show here, as poetry and visuals make abstract art.
Another focus of Zebra is the video poetry coming out of Poland. Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, Zebra’s project manager, first noticed cutting-edge poetry films from Poland in 2010. “We have very good connections to Poland and the Polish Institute in Berlin,” he said. “We found three Polish directors, who looked through our archives on www.lyrikline.org and found three poets from Berlin that they wanted to work with.” The results of this cross-border Poetic Encounters workshop “will be presented at Zebra. Polish filmmakers Wiola Sowa, Maciek Majewski and Łukasz Twarkowski worked with Berlin poets Norbert Hummelt, Nico Bleutge and Christian Filips to create film scripts based on their poems.”
This video poem, titled “Words,” includes poems by Honorata Chorąży-Przybysz, Jacek Raputa and Paweł Lysak. Maciej Piatek made the video. The lovely, shifting images, piano score, and the sound of Polish create an emotionally rich experience:
Sound, so important to the success of a video poem, is perhaps its most overlooked element. A video poem artist who uses sound as well as image to great effect is Swoon. Swoon is the internet handle of Marc Neys, who lives in Belgium with his wife, Katrijn Clemer, and a cat named Rommel. Katrijn maintains Swoon’s website and is the female voice in most of the Dutch readings.
Swoon’s work is instantly recognizable, a blend of layered images taken from internet archives, advertisements, and his own film, combined with soundtracks that Swoon makes himself. The poem appears asspoken word most of the time, and as text other times. Key images are repeated, creating a dream-like quality where images flicker across the screen. Swoon also integrates slow motion, grainy, textured pictures, and alternates black-and-white with color.
Here is the video for “ctrlC/ctrlV” by Katrijn Clemer, narrated in Dutch with English subtitles, translated by Annmarie Sauer. Pay attention to how the soundtrack enhances and underscores the voice and images:
Although his work has the look of a seasoned professional, Swoon started making his distinctive videos only two years ago. “I watched a lot of movies when I was a kid,” he told me when we talked in August. “When I was fourteen, I told myself I would make a film someday. I watch movies with an eye to the way they’re made. It drives my wife crazy, but I’m always pointing things out to her when we watch films together, especially if the film isn’t very good.” Swoon’s experience – from running “the smallest theater company in Belgium” – just he and his wife – to playing in a band and singing in English when he was sixteen – come together in his poetry videos.
Two years ago, Swoon stumbled onto poetry, which is compact and works well for short video. Dave Bonta of Moving Poems helped spread the word about his work. Soon he was submitting his videos to film festivals. “I would have been happy with just one or two entries,” he says, but his work was immediately successful: he received fifteen acceptances the first year, “and now it’s about two per month.” He gets more paying jobs for his work, and poets approach him to make videos for them.
Craft is very important in Swoon’s work. “I spend a lot of time looking at footage, but I have an eye for what I want. A bad film can make a great video poem – it’s in the editing.”
He’s made most of his videos with “a cheap DV camera and some cheap German editing software. I need to upgrade my equipment, but I’m worried that better equipment will make me lazy. With my old equipment, I’m forced to be a better filmmaker. I want people to be impressed with my eye, not the camera’s.”
As far as what the video shows, Swoon advises, “Videos should not just show what’s going on in the poem – as in, the poem mentions a leaf falling and sure enough, you see a leaf falling. I want something that takes more imagination.”
“Orphanage,” a film set to Australian poet Matt Hetherington’s poem of the same name, is an excellent example of how Swoon’s videos prod and stimulate the imagination:
Ironically, Swoon is more well-known internationally than in his own town and country. He always tries to translate the poems into English, as much of his audience is in the UK, US, and Canada. “I hope my audience will grow locally,” he said.
Swoon has come a long way since his first poem video, to Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song.” He’s now made more than one hundred video poems. He has five entries in this year’s Zebra, with one in the competition. Plans for the future include a twenty-five minute film with ten to fifteen different poems, and more collaborations with poets. He is also creating videos for his own poems, as in his recent triptych, which I featured in my first column (August 2012).
“A good video poem is packed and must be viewed many times, like a good poem must be read over and over and a good movie watched many times. If someone finds that quality in my work, it’s a big complement.” As Swoon’s work continues to mature and deepen, we will be watching it for a long time to come.
To experience more of Swoon’s work, visit his website, here.
Next month, all the news from Zebra! Keep sending those videos!