Thoughts on filmmaker/poem dynamics and collaborations

In the summer, I attended MIX Digital Storytelling Conference 2023 … and reviewed the event for Moving Poems. I briefly mentioned the excellent keynote speaker at the event – Adrian Hon. But I realised that his talk has prompted some wider thoughts about collaboration in poetry film. Adrian Hon is big in the computer gaming world, and a particular plea in his speech was a call for creatives (in the context of MIX he meant largely writers but I think his point applies to visual artists equally) to be involved with technology at all stages of development and production of a project. Creatives need opportunities to prototype ideas so that they can better understand how a project might develop when people with other skills work on it. I wholeheartedly agree, and hope his vision will have influence. A popular question for any creative is to explain how a project came into existence, and what happens behind the scenes in the development of a project. In particular, in the poetry film world where so many films are made by such small teams or partnerships, it is common to talk about or be asked about how the filmmaker has collaborated with the writer. Do they get involved together at an early stage as advocated by Adrian?

Coyote Wedding – drawing and poem by Brittani Sonnenberg, film by Jane Glennie

I began reflecting on the films I have made, and they have come about in numerous different ways. I’ve made films from pre-existing poems. This means having a personal response to a poem and expressing that in film. But even this simple beginning can have different situations. Do I know the poet personally or not? Do I have any contact or discussion with the poet before or during the making of the film? Is the contact in person, or by email/messaging? Have I chosen the poem? Or has the poet chosen me to make a film? I think all of this can change the dynamic in the filmmaker’s relationship with the poem.

Film still – I’ll write about it later – Jessie Jing

Sometimes the poet might be the filmmaker themselves. There are lots of examples to explore on Moving Poems – search ‘author-made videopoems‘ and you will find Valerie LeBlanc and Daniel Dugas, Jessie Jing, Marc Neys, Matt Mullins, Janet Lees and many more. Early on, I decided I would try to make a film from my own writing, and though the result is similar to my other work in its technique and imagery, I know that my approach to the visual ideas in this film felt very different because as I wrote the words I had images in my mind.nnI have made work collaboratively with writers. I’ve discussed the ideas for a film with a writer who went away and wrote a poem, recorded the voice and then I made my film. I’ve discussed ideas for a film with Lucy English for her Book of Hours project, then wrote a short second voice response to her poem (Glitter – December evening in the Book of Hours), so the writing became a joint poem, and then I made the film. I collaborated even more deeply with Rosie Garland for Because Goddess is Never Enough.

Having discussion and input into projects has been rewarding in all instances – but it was quite different with Rosie. This time, the idea for the project came from me. I researched the subject and gave a dossier of material, texts and images to Rosie. She came back to me with snippets and first drafts which we were able to discuss and develop, and she was very open to my edits and changes to words and the ordering of the poems of the final piece. I also changed the first and third person voice around in some places. Some of the changes and edits happened as I worked on and developed the films. There have been dynamics that I have enjoyed, and I’ve been stimulated by collaboration. But equally it can be enjoyable to just try making a film in response to only the words of a poem – to be responsible for the reading (whether myself or choosing another voice), and be free of any connection to the writer. Marie Craven has told me that she will sometimes make a film without necessarily asking the poet first – she wants to try things out in an independent way that might not necessarily work. Then if she finishes the film she will ask later, and has only once had a rejection.

If the thought of taking Marie’s approach worries you, then there is no shortage of out-of-copyright poetry to play with. Or, as a final thought – there is also found poetry and erasure poetry to play with, another scenario for a filmmaker to explore. In fact this was my route into poetry film before I knew it existed as a genre. Channel Swimmer was my first film, and it was made with texts extracted from two novels. Often a very successful process for Matt Mullins, for one.

I can’t pinpoint what the differences might be in the end results of any film, but I do think that this idea of changing the dynamics of involvement in a project is a very interesting part of my filmmaking journey. Some approaches have felt more comfortable and successful, and some less so. I encourage you to mix it up and experiment with something different to your norm.

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