Having attended a screening of poetry films at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork earlier this month, I was eager to read more about this new approach to short filmmaking. A ‘poetry film’ is a film created specifically around a certain poem. It is not enough to say that the film is “based on” a poem, as that may indicate a short film which was simply inspired by poetry with no actual reference to the poem itself. Rather, the poem is an integral part of the film, and a reading of it is usually worked into the film, whether by a voiceover or as part of the dialogue.
Merging a poem and a film like this has some interesting results. It allows for a visual interpretation of the poem, thereby spreading new ideas about the poem in question, while the practice also allows for great experimentation within filmmaking. Indeed, it can be a blessing to those filmmakers who thrive on visuals but who are in need of a script or idea to play with. One poetry filmmaker, Beate Kunth, comments on this when she says that “a finished original text is a great gift, especially for filmmakers who tend to work visually and like to get by without writing texts or dialogues”.
Nevertheless, poetry filmmaking has raised some criticisms and even the screening I attended was followed by a Q and A which led to some debate between those who appreciate a poetry film as an art in itself, and others who found the exercise rather pointless. Of the latter group, one viewer stated that “a film is a film” and “a poem is a poem” and saw the attempt to combine them as having no benefit to either field. It is true that some poetry films might ‘take from’ the impact of the poem, particularly if it is an abstract piece that may necessitate a personal reading; in this case, it can be difficult to concentrate on the visuals and listen carefully to the reading of the poem at the same time.
Many poetry films, however, successfully capture the essence of the poem, and create an enjoyable experience for the viewer. At times, poems are integrated into the movie plot such as in ‘Une Lecon Particuliere’, a French short wherein a young woman helping a male pupil with his lessons provides the context for the reading of a Victor Hugo poem. Other films use the voiceover technique, and this seems to work best with less abstract pieces, such as in this award-winning animated short, ‘The Dead’ by Billy Collins.
The ‘poetry film’ is a genre which is still finding its feet; cinema and TV have not quite welcomed this art as of yet, and some believe only the internet is providing the opportunity for poetry films to flourish. Google ‘poetry films’ however, and the results are a disappointing mix of blog thoughts and book references with no real backstory or history of the genre. The likes of YouTube and other online video sites are the best resources for a chance to view a poetry film. Poetry film festivals are springing up around the world also, with Germany’s Zebra Poetry Film Festival being the largest in the world. Given time, and with filmmakers always searching for some new inspiration, it is hoped that the poetry film can grow from an avant-garde interest to a common source of enjoyment for film and poetry lovers worldwide.
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