This innovative videopoem about the destruction of Damascus, The City, alternates lines from a poem by Ghayath Almadhoun, translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham and read by female voices, and a poem by Marie Silkeberg, translated from Swedish by Frank Perry and read by male voices. The readers are people from the streets of Stockholm. Silkeberg composed the sound montage and Almadhoun the montage of found footage from the internet. He mentioned in a recent interview that the film has been screened in more than 150 festivals.
This is of the best poems about war I’ve ever read (or heard). It’s by the Syrian-born Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun, from التفاصيل (The Details), translated by Catherine Cobhamin, in a film adaptation that he made in collaboration with the Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg—a partnership described in a recent interview in Arabic Literature (in English). The English titling floats and disappears above a bombed-out city: Berlin. As Almadhoun describes it in the interview,
The material you saw, this is Berlin, and nobody saw it before. Not even the Germans. I have thirteen minutes from July 1945, forty-five days after the war, somebody filmed it.
Yes, National Geographic maybe they bought five seconds, and I think in the BBC documentary they bought around seven seconds, because it’s so expensive. Nobody knows how I got it, and I think if they saw it, they will take me to court. Because the owner of this material is one of the biggest companies in Hollywood. But still, I want the people to see this. No one has seen Berlin like this.
I use eight minutes of it in this film.
AL: And the poem?
GM: The poem is written about Damascus. But it has in the beginning something about Berlin. And I feel that there is no difference between destruction and destruction. Yes, the story of Berlin is different — they attacked the world, the world attacked them.
What’s happening in Syria is different. The destruction in Syria is more. If you look at the suburbs of Damascus, you will find that most of the buildings have fallen down. While in Berlin it was only the roofs. So I can compare the situation in Syria for example with Hiroshima or Dresden, only.
Do read the rest of the interview, which was especially interesting to me for its defense of poet-made films, as opposed to some of the very slick animations that are appearing online and at poetry film festivals these days:
Why should I only write my poem and wait until a professional can make a video? He always chooses classic and simple things because he’s not a poet.
I want the poets to make poetry films, and I and I want the focus to be on the poem. If the focus is on the film, then go to the short film.
The quality of the poem should be added to the question. The animations are really beautiful, and some of them are really expensive. I remember one of the films cost maybe one million dollars. They got a prize. For me, if I was on the jury, I would not give them a prize. Because the poem was really bad.
Almadhoun gets to say this, in my opinion, because he is both a masterful poet and a good filmmaker. I’m also grateful to him for making his YouTube channel public and the videos shareable. You can expect to see his other collaborations with Silkeberg here soon.