I have previously explored poetry film in Spain and Portugal for an essay in The Poetics of Poetry Film published in 2011 by Intellect Books, and in Colombia for WMagazín, but I knew zilch about the subject in New Zealand. It’s actually still relatively unknown even among poets and filmmakers – but when I started digging, I found a rich history, and numerous exciting contemporary film-makers.
Martin Sercombe has taught degree level 16mm film and digital video production at AUT School of Art and Design. His advice for people wanting to make films for the inaugural Aotearoa Poetry Film Festival in November: “Start with a strong poem or visual idea. Your poetry film should be built around a powerful and emotionally resonant idea.”
The festival, staged in Wellington, is entirely devoted to the celebration and showcase of poetry film in New Zealand. Poetry film or video poetry is a fast-growing art form that combines poetry, moving images, sound and music. Organisers invite film-makers and poets of any age and backgrounds to enter – and particularly encourage innovative and eclectic takes on poetry film as a distinct media form.
As Sercombe suggests, a film needn’t always start with a poem – and maybe the visual idea inspires the poem. “The visual elements are just as important as the poetry itself. Consider using metaphor, symbolism, or visual techniques to deepen the impact of your work. Also, be mindful of pacing.” Stillness, silence, even a black screen, can be a powerful contrast to movement, rhythm and noise.
The Going West literary festival, directed by James Littlewood, has made seven films and they are currently in production with another five. James describes their first film season – Different Out Loud – as “part of our exploration of the boundaries of literature. It’s poetry made for the screen. We’re all very familiar with the categories of page poetry and performance poetry. Well, in our poetry films, the cinematic presentation is just as influential, or maybe more so.”
His advice: “Get used to not forcing everything to make sense all the time. It’s poetry. It’s fine to let the audience join the dots however they want. They are already way ahead of you.” He also warns against getting trapped in the idea of illustrating the text. “The images in a poem will work on their own. We don’t need to see a field of daffodils or a dude wandering lonely as a cloud.”
However, I’d suggest that in the same way as a poem can be very accessible or completely impenetrable, a poetry film may take a more narrative approach as William Cho does in Paula Harris’s poetry film there is a scratch on the inside of my right knee (see below), or it could be totally experimental, playing with sound, layering images, combining arts, performance, sound, as in Martin Sercombe’s Tongues Undone (also below). Maybe you want to play with visual contrasts, explore AI imagery, go back to stop-motion animation, Super-8 film, stock images, old video cameras, collaborate with musicians, filmmakers, poets, write a poem yourself, or just take your mobile phone for a walk…Where do you want to start?
Pioneering poetry films in New Zealand include Ariel’s Song / Full Fathom Five (1953) by Len Lye, The Magpies (1974) with Denis Glover and directed by Martyn Sanderson, and an attempt in 1949 to make a cinematic poem about an ascent of Mt Aspiring, with James K. Baxter and others, which features in the documentary Aspiring (2006).
Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell took poetry to the people, touring street theatre but also exploring performance on film with Sam Neill as director in Red Mole on the Road (1979). The stunning Generation by David Downes was the first New Zealand work to be awarded at the 3rd ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin in 2006, winning the radioeines prize.
There is often a cross-over with experimental film, animation, performance art and videoclips. The platform CIRCUIT has previously invited video artists to respond to the poetry of Joanna Paul, and in 2021 they published Text as Material: 10 Works Inspired by Poetry, Word, and Song.
With the popularity of Slam Poetry and sharing poetry readings on social networks, there is a growing interest in different ways to reach an audience. Poets such as Ben Fagan (artistic director of Motif Poetry Rurui Tūtohu) in his Pākehā 2020 series, and Dominic Hoey, with pieces released under his moniker Tourettes, have explored creative ways to present poems on screen that go beyond just recording a reading or performance.
In a Māori context it’s interesting to see artists such as Shannon Te Ao working with video installations inspired by poetry, waiata or moteatea, or pieces featuring Māori poets such as Moko with Ben Brown, directed by Félix Vaunois. A number the films included in the Wairoa and Māoriland film festivals would find a perfect fit with dedicated poetry film festivals.
Let’s look at some great poetry films, below.
Martin Sercombe has run the annual poetry film festival Lyrical Visions with Robin Kewell since 2016, and has collaborated with a wide range of poets and composers, such as Monty Adkins, Gus Simonovic and Thom Conroy. He began exploring the genre in the 1990s in collaborations with the performance artists Cris Cheek and Sianed Jones who feature in a key work of this period: Tongues Undone.
He says, “The central theme of the work is the human voice, and the translation of pure vocal statements into choreographed movement and gesture. Likewise, graphic symbols and graffiti are translated into performed sound and body movements. Spoken words mutate into animated text on the video screen creating a cyclic dialogue between the different linguistic forms.”
Tongues Undone (18:45 min)
Poet: Cris Cheek and Sianed Jones
Director: Martin Sercombe
Some six years ago, Palmerston North writer Paula Harris began looking for ways to turn her poems into films and started her search for funding. Last February four poetic short films were officially launched and have been travelling festivals around the world. Her first film, On The Couch With My Depression, has been taught into a film course in New York State, which she says “was the goal that the filmmaker, Angharad Gladding and I didn’t know we had until it happened.”
She describes her role as “more of executive producer. I send more emails than I ever thought would be necessary, approaching filmmakers and asking if they’d be interested, and sending out a sampler of my poems for them to see if there’s something they connect with.” Director William Cho was drawn to the poem there is a scratch on the inside of my right knee and, after pitching his concept, including a break down of the budget, they signed agreements and William was free to take creative control.
Paula’s only requirement is that the films are accessible and not intimidating for the viewer but puts a high value on the freedom of the filmmakers to “put their aesthetic, their vision, their storytelling into the film. I had no idea what I would’ve wanted any of these poems to look like as films, but every single one is entirely a reflection of me. And I love that.”
there is a scratch on the inside of my right knee (3:25 min)
Poet: Paula Harris
Director: William Cho
In a similar vein to Paula Harris, Going West commissions filmmakers and gives them full artistic freedom within the budget. With Different Out Loud the only rule was camerawork had to be shot in the Waitākere Ranges Local Board area, as they were a major funder.
Going West has also commissioned two short documentaries, Moving Portraits. James Littlewood says, “Without really trying, we received tons of pitches with strong poetry angles. We sought ideas for a subjective cinematic portrait of a story teller. This necessitated some degree of collaboration between subject and filmmakers, and it turned out that poetry subjects had the strongest appeal to filmmakers responding to that brief. We did one about the poet Freya Daly Sadgrove, and another about Nathan Joe.
“Nathan Joe: Homecoming Poems is possibly our most ambitious project. Nathan Joe is part of Oriental Maidens, a highly innovative theatre group based in Tāmaki mostly featuring young rainbow Asian talent. Nathan created three autobiographical pieces, focusing on his identity as a gay Asian man from a socially conservative context in Ōtautahi. His production team headed by producers Ankita Singh and Samantha Dutton, and director Nahyeon Lee, created a vibrant, luxurious and immersive audiovisual environment.”
It has certain parallels with Why I Write: Verses in Exile #1 (Cambodia, 2011) directed by Masahiro Sugano, with the carefully placed colours, the highly stylised performative aspects, and the autobiographical base.
Nathan Joe: Homecoming Poems (13:30 min)
Poet: Nathan Joe
Director: Nahyeon Lee
Poetry and animation are often a perfect match. The step away from reality provides an oneiric space which the poem inhabits. Many poetry filmmakers are also using different formats, as their work is either created from clips filmed on mobile phones, or presented on social media platforms. Even on a wide film festival screen a vertical image, filmed in portrait, immediately connects with a younger generation documenting their lives with their phones.
This format was chosen by Luke McPake for one of the highlights of the first season of Different Out Loud, Do Not Go Gentle by Hera Lindsay Bird. James comments on the work, “I love that it’s a completely unique looking thing: not just the aspect ratio, but also its strange and hallucinatory colour scheme, its slightly eccentric rotoscoping (at least I think that’s what it is), and of course the strange and enigmatic text which Hera wrote as a contemporary extension of the famous Dylan Thomas work.”
Do Not Go Gentle (3:28 min)
Poet: Hera Lindsay Bird
Director: Luke McPake
The impulse behind the Aotearoa Poetry Film Festival is the film scholar and filmmaker Alfio Leotta. Alfio introduces one of his first poetry films, Paradiso, which was part of a trilogy of films commissioned by the Sydney Institute of Italian Culture to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. The other two films were Inferno, directed by Shu Run Yap, and Purgatorio, directed by Ehsan Hazaveh.
Alfio was also the executive producer for these films and says, “Our goal was to adapt a canto from each book of the Divine Comedy from a New Zealand perspective. Each film was narrated by a prominent New Zealand poet representing one of the largest ethnic groups in the country (Māori, Pasifika and Pakeha) and was shot in Wellington. Paradiso, which I directed, was narrated by Bill Manhire, and was selected for the Copenhagen Nature and Culture Festival in 2022.”
Paradiso (2:16 min)
Director: Alfio Leotta
Alfio also introduced me to one of his favourite poetry films, Acknowledgements, by Auckland-based film-maker Arvid Eriksson, which he says “is a beautiful, intelligent and funny film that inspired my decision to start experimenting with poetry film.”
Acknowledgements (3:30 min)
Poet: Louise Wallace
Director: Arvid Eriksson
Writing and painting have always been important to me, and, looking back, it was a natural step to take these into film. Together with my wife, the Colombian poet Lilián Pallares, we have made many films based on our own poems and those of friends. Recently we have taken this a step further, making collaborative poetry films, most recently with the Fundación ONCE in Spain as part of their VIII Biennial of Contemporary Art, or with the girls of Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras.
These start from building connections and sharing ideas which in turn the participants use to write poems. As facilitators of the workshop we give up creative control and trust in the creativity of the participants. In our collaborative poetry film in te reo Māori, Noho Mai, we all worked together but respected the decisions of each person, and this is reflected in the credits where we are all ngā kaitohu – directors.
Noho Mai was our first film to be ‘in competition’ at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, 2021. It was a little intimidating seeing it shown between big budget films from China and by a Hollywood director. At the same time poetry film has the power to connect at a visceral level which is not related to production costs. Noho Mai went on to win Best Poetry Film in the 8th Ó Bhéal Poetry Film Competition in Cork, Ireland.
Noho Mai (5:33 min)
Poet: Peta-Maria Tunui
Directors: Peta-Maria Tunui, Waitahi Aniwaniwa McGee, Shania Bailey-Edmonds, Jesse-Ana Harris, Lilián Pallares and Charles Olsen
Submissions for the inaugural Aotearoa Poetry Film Festival are open until August 15. The festival will take place in Wellington on November 2-3 in association with Victoria University and Wellington UNESCO City of Film.