ZEBRA 2022: The Cannes of Poetry Film Turns 20

Award ceremony – Zebra Poetry Film Festival 2022. Photo: Jane Glennie

Four days of events, readings and film screenings in one of the cultural hearts of Berlin was completed with the awards ceremony on Sunday 6 November 2022. In the fabulous venue of the Kino in der Kulturbrauerei, filmmakers and poets attended ZEBRA from far and wide – from Brazil to Ukraine by way of Ireland, UK and Switzerland to name but a few.

A wide-ranging and well-attended festival dedicated to poetry film is a marvelous thing. ZEBRA is the largest and longest-running festival of its kind, and the hosts were delighted to be fully in-person and without restrictions again. The event is welcoming, friendly and in a brilliant venue in a great part of a great city.

Film is often the first impression we get of a city in the world, and being from the UK, it took me a couple of days to get over the feeling of being in every Cold War spy movie I’ve ever seen that has passed through East Berlin. But I was lucky enough to be able to attend ZEBRA throughout the four days and soon felt relaxed and at home in this exciting, culturally rich city. It’s not physically possible to see all that ZEBRA has to offer because there are often events or screenings that take place simultaneously, but the film selection I enjoyed included animations, documentaries, spoken word films, and sign language poetry film. The programme committee want to represent the world in the films they choose for the International Competition, as well as a range of genres within films connected by the common thread of poetry or a poetic approach. They chose to have a focus on Ukraine with both films and poetry readings, and a retrospective of Maya Deren (born in Kyiv), but beyond the dreadful situation faced by Ukrainians, ZEBRA seem keen to use their platform to screen films that have pertinent and important messages to convey.

In the programme, the new director of ZEBRA, Katharina Schultens, said:

“Poetry and poetry films do not have a lot in common with the escapism of the entertainment industry and the consolation its products may offer. They reach much further than that. Yes, they can offer us comfort, too, but while doing so, they also pose the difficult questions we have to face… [such as] war and displacement … exclusion in societies … climate catastrophe…”

At this point in the week afterwards, reflecting on the films I have seen and the films I have missed, or been forced to miss because of simultaneous programming – this is where an online component would be hugely valuable, and I urge ZEBRA and all other festivals to consider the approach taken by the Women Over 50 Film Festival (WOFFF) in Lewes (UK) this year.  WOFFF took place in a hybrid format. All films could be watched in the online festival leading up to the in-person event. But the really valuable bit is that attendees of the in-person event were offered a voucher to watch more of the films throughout the week AFTER the in-person event. Talking to people during the in-person event, and through the connections you make, you meet or discover writers and filmmakers whose work you have missed, hear recommendations for someone else’s favourite film, see a film of a type that you didn’t know you were going to love and you want to explore more of, or recall something that sticks in your mind and you want to watch again to appreciate fully. Or simply your appetite has been awakened for the very first time and you want to see more than you thought you would …

Kino in der Kulturbrauerei, Zebra Poetry Film Festival 2022. Photo: Jane Glennie.

The winners of Zebra 2022 seem to reflect an overall philosophy of championing weighty subject matter. Or perhaps they reflect an understandable mood of seriousness in the world. (The list of winners and judges’ comments are available on the ZEBRA website and in their press release.) Personally, I was disappointed by the choice of both Black. British. Muslim. Other. and Terra Dei Padri (Fathers’ Land). While each had a very strong story to tell, one through a very immediate approach in the poet’s performance and direction, and the other through the use of archive images, I did not think either was a great example of their type. Far stronger in the use of language, image and filmmaking technique was the film given a special mention, Zyclus (Cycle).

The strongest film receiving an award was Imaginings. Written and performed by a collective of deaf poets, the film is poetry in sign language. The direction of the film by Anja Hiddinga and the energy given to it by the poet performers themselves made this an extremely compelling film to watch. I give a personal special mention to the typographic choices made for the subtitling. The words were placed over the centre of the chest of each performer as they signed. This meant that you did not need to take your eyes away from their hands and their signing. At times the type could be slightly difficult to read because it bobbed about as the poet’s body moved, but this added to the physicality of the language because their bodies moved more in, for example, moments of frustration.

The most interesting poetry film I saw was one of the selected three best interpretations of the festival poem Anderkat by Georg Leß. The poem is fascinating but very oblique. I personally found it impenetrable when I tried to imagine a treatment. At the Festival Poem event, when Georg Leß was introduced and he talked about his poem, his fascination and work with horror films came to light which then made a lot of sense in relation to his writing. I could let myself off the hook a little because I can rarely find a connection with horror in film. One of the filmmakers talked about expressing the uncanny and I think this was the key to this poem. The longlisted films shown before the three best failed to do this and, as a result, felt very unsatisfactory and weak in their choice of images. But I thought the film by Beate Gördes was stunning. Notable because it used no words, only very peculiar, uncanny images, it is one of the films I really want to watch several times over to appreciate its subtleties.

Two very enjoyable films in the event were documentaries. Spatzen und Spaziergänge (Sparrows and Strolls) was the beautifully shot and framed film by Maria Mohr with the poet Marko Pogačar, and the other was The Last Cuckoo by Mark Chaudoir about the poet Dennis Gould which managed to capture the personality of the poet’s life in a hugely engaging way. Also pleasing was the community project from Dublin, Dance till Dán which fused choreography with collectively created poetry.

Overall however, I would have liked to have seen more films that interpreted poems of the very highest quality with visual results that are more intrinsically a fused filmic/poetic experience in themselves than they are illustrative or performative. Perhaps those are the ones I happened to miss? On that note, I reiterate, please ZEBRA, do consider an online offering that extends after the in-person event.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    Alison Glennie 10 November, 2022

    A wonderfully informative review of Zebra poetry film festival. I can’t wait to attend in the future.

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