This 2016 film co-directed by Stephan Bookas and Tristan Dawes moved me to tears. That’s how effective, and affecting, I found this juxtaposition of W. H. Auden’s poem (text here) about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany—read by a man identified only as Noah, a refugee and former child soldier from Uganda—with excellent documentary footage of contemporary refugees. Here’s the official synopsis from Bookas’ website:
Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, the multi-award winning “Refugee Blues” charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. More intimate and unlike much of what has been seen in the mass media, this documentary poem counterpoints the camp’s harsh reality of frequent clashes with the French riot police with its inhabitants’ longing for a better future.
On Vimeo, Bookas includes a mini essay about the making of the film, which I found illuminating in its suggestion of how documentary poetry can differ from journalism. This was something I’d been thinking about because I recently attended a reading and slideshow from another documentary poetry project, which was a collaboration between a poet and a photojournalist: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin’s Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields. Technically, Auden’s poem by itself would not be considered an example of documentary poetry, but as a filmpoem Refugee Blues certainly would qualify, in my opinion. Anyway, I hope Mr. Bookas won’t mind my quoting a sizable chunk of his post:
We didn’t set out to make a film at first – that idea came later – we just packed a car full of blankets, clothes, food and other items and went, not fully knowing what to expect. But of course, being filmmakers, we also brought along our cameras – to see if we might have the opportunity to document, to capture, to find the human story in all the chaos that was so ubiquitous in the media at the time.
Soon after our arrival, we found the people living at the refugee camp to be very warm and welcoming, as long as we assured them we weren’t news-gathering journalists.
We didn’t film anything to begin with and just walked around, introduced ourselves as documentary filmmakers and listened to people and their stories. Every single one of them was unique and heartbreaking.
Following these discussions, we asked if it would be alright to take out our cameras and start filming. For the most part the answer was a resounding yes.
We spent the following days exploring the camp and talking to people, discussing the situation and the political climate and spending time with them, being invited for coffee and food and allowed to film elements of their daily lives. This turned out to be the calm before the storm, as things culminated in a clash between the camp’s inhabitants and the French riot police on the road leading to the ferry terminal, symbolic for the plight of the refugees and their struggle against institutional powers they are unable to defend themselves against. […]
Of course, our film can’t possibly even begin to try and unravel all the lives and personal fates entangled within this crisis. But in some small way, and for us especially, it has given this tragedy a face that’s less abstract, more relatable, more human.
Stuart Pound and Rosemary Norman have been collaborating on videopoems for 24 years now, but their work has lost none of its freshness or surprise. When I click on one of Pound’s videos in my Vimeo feed, it’s with the expectation that it won’t resemble too closely anything he’s done before. And so it was with this animation.
“The angry sleeper stalks his dreams/hard from night to night”. Dirk Bouts’s 1470 painting of demons carrying sinners off to Hell is the starting point for this not-quite-serious animated nightmare. Pachelbel’s famous canon played on a musical box is the accompaniment.
Jessica Mookherjee‘s poem “Song of the Soil”, from her collection, Tigress (Nine Arches Press, 2019), is given heartfelt filmic treatment by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron, under the auspices of their production house, Elephant’s Footprint. According to the book’s webpage,
Jess Mookherjee is of Bengali heritage and grew up in Swansea. She has been widely published in magazines, including Under the Radar, Agenda, The North, Rialto, Antiphon and Ink, Sweat & Tears. She is author of The Swell (Telltale Press) and Joyride (Black Light Engine Room Press) and Flood (Cultured Llama). She was highly commended in the Forward Prize 2017 for best single poem. Jessica works in Public Health and lives in Kent.
The poem expresses a deep connection to the Earth in an elegy of lost origins and disappearing ground. Giving further voice to these themes, the film is imbued with overexposed images of a natural world scorched yellow and burnt brown, and a soundtrack made ominous by ambient bass. Mookherjee’s solemn, rich narration rounds the elements of this powerfully organic piece.
The film is part of a series Helen and Chaucer have been doing for Nine Arches Press. They note that “The film-poems are not only viewed by Nine Arches’ existing readers and online audiences, but are a tool for their poets to engage more easily with their existing and new audiences.” The press, however, does not appear to embed any of the videos on the books’ pages, which is kind of baffling.
Dutch filmmaker Helmie Stil‘s latest filmpoem, just released online yesterday, is a brilliant follow-up to her award-winning The Opened Field. Like that film, it’s based on a poem from the UK Poetry Society’s 2017 National Poetry Competition, this time the commended poem “Muirburn” by Yvonne Reddick, a scholar of ecopoetry and up-and-coming poet from the northwest of England. And like Dom Bury’s “The Opened Field”, “Muirburn” is an unsettling poem that gives Stil plenty of room to subvert viewers’ expectations, steering just close enough to standard, narrative film-making to draw us in and reveal the—I would argue—true, uncanny reality of nature and our relationship with it. One of the National Poetry Competition judges, Pacale Petit, noted that the poem itself contains “filmic flashes, which dissolve and sear as if glimpsed through a furnace”, and added that it “concludes on an astonishing parting image”—a real gift to the filmmaker, who certainly rose to the challenge.
The film premiered in March, according to the Poetry Society’s announcement post:
Yvonne Reddick also won the inaugural Peggy Poole Award, and the film ‘Muirburn’ was premiered at the Peggy Poole Award readings at Bluecoat, Liverpool on 13 March 2019.