Zebra - Poetryfilm Awards in Berlin
held 2 - 5 July 2002
filed 26 July 2002 | Berlin by Ulrike Jung
The organizers of the Berlin Summer Festival of Literature (Berliner Sommerfest der Literaturen) achieved something quite estonishing. Deriving from their wish to show the existing forms of contemporary poetry, an idea developed to closely examine the relationship between literature and film, and so stage a poetry film festival. A few months were sufficient for them to turn this idea into reality within the frame of the Berlin Summer Festival of Literature. They wanted the festival to be a worldwide gathering, a platform, in order to find out the poetry film's actual state and to present it.
In spite of the short amount of time, they succeeded in assembling a competent team, responsible for the pre-selection of films and in creating a jury of high competence to select the art works worthy of an award. Film and poetry were well represented in both groups by media artists, with people working in the realm of film and/or TV, and authors. The festival became international by including Bob Holman, one of the founders of poetry film, from New York City, and Matt Hulse, from Edinburgh, in the jury.
And Dr. Thomas Wohlfahrt, the director of the Berlin Summer Festival of Literature and initiator of the Zebra Poetryfilm Award, landed another coup, to get the German Technical Corporation for Developmental Cooperation (GTZ), to sponsor the three awards, having the overall sum of 10,000 Euros. The GTZ carries out projects for the German government in the frame of the international cooperation, and supported the Zebra Award, "... because in poetry the identity of a society gets more dense and because poetry can contribute to the dialogue of cultures and to the international understanding above all borders - especially if, as it is the case in poetry film, poems are combined with the medium film." (GTZ press announcement).
Undertaking such intensive work in so little time, Thomas Wohlfahrt and the two directors of the Zebra project group, Leyla Bouzid Discacciati and Peter Holzwarth, didn't realize that there already had been a lot of activity in poetry film beyond Germany, and that the first international award had already been nominated. [Other poetry film and poetry video festival organizers who had programmed earlier festivals with awards quietly took issue with the Zebra Festival's original advertized claim that the Zebra Festival was offering the first international award in poetry video/film. Prior festivals that recognized and/or honored participants outside their home country include the Riga Word in Motion Festival, in 2001; the Vancouver Videopoem Festival, begun in 1999; the National Poetry Video Festival, Chicago, begun in 1991; and the San Francisco Cin-(e)-Poetry Festival, begun over twenty years ago. - Editor] It was not the organizers' intent for Zebra to compete with other festivals. They simply shifted the emphasis to "Zebra" and abandoned "Worldwide", so that the "First Worldwide Poetryfilm Award Zebra" became the "First Zebra Poetryfilm Award." They wanted exchange and cooperation with other similar festivals.
And why did the organizers name the festival Zebra? "This word functions in many languages. The stripes symbolize a realm of tension which normally develops when a poem initiates cinema in the head, and then meets the world of film." And finally, said Thomas Wohlfahrt, "A Zebra cannot be tamed!" So the preconditions for a good festival were more than fulfilled. The Zebra organizers hoped to reach even the world's farthest corners using the distribution networks of the international short film festival interfilm berlin, of the Goethe Institutes, and the German embassies.
More than a hundred video and film submissions were expected, but more than 600 came in. Out of these, the pre-selection committee chose 400 to be projected, and from these only 33 for the competition itself. To lend some structure to the 400 contributions, 14 categories were created: Short for Kids; Illusions and Dreams; Love and Other Catastrophies; Slam Poetry; The Horror; City Tumult; Animation; Short Short; Trashy; Transformations; Local Heroes; and three special national series focussing on Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA. Altogether, this was a big spectrum of themes, and suggested even bigger rewards for the audience.
Unfortunately, quite a lot of the program lowered this reward, mostly due to technical issues. Coarse-grained images flickered on the big screen. The sound seemed mediocre, too, and the interplay of film and poetic text seemed awkward at times. This impression continued throughout the Festival except for the competition blocks. Altogether, the quality of films left much to be desired, and if they were projected as a low-resolution VHS-copy -- which happened many times -- this effect was even reinforced.
Yet it has to be considered that many videos came from the late 1980's, a period when the technical quality of video was not yet very good, at least for big screen projection. Compact DV technology does offer hope for the future of large-scale presentations. Bob Holman inspired further confidence by saying, "Right now poetry film is in the kindergarten stage. It is a young genre which is still developing. Here are potentials and chances!"
Brigitte Oleschinski, author and member of the Zebra pre-selection committee, also remarked that the genre's full potential hasn't been met yet, saying, "[There is] the dream of the perfect poetry film, but instead [we are seeing] quite a lot of interesting approaches." And indeed, the variety of the submitted poetry films was large. The range started at the simplest end of the spectrum with the basic recordings of poetry performances. Such performance poetry documentation was not chosen for projection, Oleschinski said, "because they don't deliver anything to create a new genre." From that basic level, the sophistication ranged up to productions in which the story related by the film was picked up in the end as threads of the poem itself. The aesthetic range extended from purist film, which included only typographical elements, up to animations with original and processed voice. There were even films that did not have any poems in them, but instead merely referred to poems.
All this is allowed to be called poetry film. And it's here that one wishes this variety will be preserved, and that no wars of conviction will break out. That alternative situation would, as a consequence, cut and restrict the form to purist definitions, causing many fresh ideas and expressions to bite the dust.
And yet, even during this first Zebra Poetry Film Festival, an exclusion took place where the participants had very different opinions. The video poetry clip - propagated and produced, for example, by the co-founder of the Berlin Poetry Slam, Wolfgang Hogekamp - was not represented as a genre in the competition. The pre-selection committee said the images are subordinate to the words in this genre, instead of each having the same importance as in the case in poetry films. Therefore, the committee argued, a new creation can't develop, a creation which takes its existence out of the two components, image and word, and which cannot be disentangled. The video poetry clip's potential for commercial exploitation, such as in representing an author to customers in book stores, put the video poetry clip in a dubious light for some of the Festival attendees, and even led them to speculate about its rightful existence as a work of art!
As a consequence, Wolfgang Hogekamp claimed that modernity and friction, as actualities of every day life, were missing in the competition program. Instead, Hogekamp said there were, "…too many dead poets combined with picture material which already determined the methaphor, instead of having [the metaphors] produced in the recipient's head."
Two panels, each of them lasting several hours, addressed discussions of this kind about the content and aesthetics of the poetry film. Questions were considered about media law, as well as the odds of earning money with productions of this kind. In the panels, too, competent representatives spoke in behalf of their art, such as Gerhard Rühm, sound poet and cofounder or the "Group of Vienna", whose work threads dadaism with literary expressionism. As early as the 1970's, Rühm had turned poems into films, and now here in Berlin he advanced the idea of the author who creates his poem while taking into account the film which will evolve out of it.
Bob Holman wasn't just part of the jury and the panels, but was also honored as "father of the poetry film". In a program of his own, he showed three of his poetry film series "The United States of Poetry". And finally, here they came - the good examples of how poetry film can work, can be a pleasure, and can touch and captivate the spectator. The good thing about it was, there were contributions from and therefore for all groups of age, for the very young and for the very old ones, and the ones in between, too. There were contributions with a strong intellectual touch and others knitted in a simpler and more emotional way, depending on the author. And this proves again, that poetry can work indeed across all layers of society, that it can give something to everybody, and that many people could get in touch again with poems through this new genre.
Back to the other poetry films... The competition offered 33 films from 16 countries, and showed a considerable improvement over the rest of the Festival in terms of quality of content and presentation. Besides films coming from countries where poetry film already has a good base, such as the US, Canada and Great Britain, there were also contributions from such "exotic parts of the world" as Latvia, Singapore, India, and Chile.
The films of the competition covered the whole spectrum of creative possibilities within this new genre as much as they are known today, with the exception of the video poetry clip (see above). In "Perfect Activity Leaves No Traces" this sentence exactly is put on the street with a stencil. But the printing material isn't paint, it's popcorn, and a few seconds later it is eaten up all together by pigeons! "Gemini" shows pretend twins, where the left one always starts speaking the words and the right one finishes them. This is quite a hard endeavor for both the actors and the spectator. "Achterbahntraeme" and "Sandburg's Arithmetics" are friendly and humorous animations based on poems. "La fleur du mal" uses the said poem by Baudelaire to tell it as a picture story, but in doing so it stays too close and too concrete to the text.
"Vertraute Quatrain" on the other hand takes up the Dadaist tradition, splicing and intertmingling words so that a new text with new and partially nonsense words develops.
And here are the jury's decisions:
Thomas Wohlfahrt is satisfied with the run of the First Zebra Poetry Film Festival, and is considering many further Zebras, maybe as a biennale. That would be desirable, for this way one could witness how poetry film is developing from the kindergarten stage to a grown-up and powerful genre with lots of radiating effects.
Wrapping up, I offer these three interesting poetry items: