image courtesy: Eduardo Yagüe and Jean Morris.
FAMILY HISTORY POETRY FILMS
Welcome to the Poetry Films and Family History section of the Liberated Words website. I am really happy to introduce this subject, which has developed from my own (25 year) project involving poetry, poetry film and family history entitled TREE. In April (2021) I gave an online presentation of a selection of family history poetry films at LYRA poetry festival, Bristol, under the (optimistically post-COVID) theme of Reconnections. I had seen a number of poetry films relating to family history at festivals during the previous year, and so felt it was time to develop a section on the subject.
Introducing My Own Journey
I have been been researching my family history for over 25 years. More recently, as I began making poetry films, I realised I wanted to create a project that would include poetry, and poetry film, as well as archival and responsive onsite research, which I titled Tree. The project originated as a creative means to understanding where I ‘come from’ and create a sense of belonging absent since childhood.
It takes a long time to develop such a project, travelling to different countries, whilst running your own life, bringing up children etc. At first you are gathering: information, footage, facts and feelings, probably lost and floundering or following dead end trails. Then slowly pieces begin to fit together. I should add that my project relates mainly to ancestors who have passed on, rather than focusing on interviewing the living.
To simplify all the data collected, I have divided the project up chapters which relate to eras, or centuries, with certain periods and places in history coming to the fore. My family mainly worked the land and rivers, or were miners, and so there is a strong connection to geopoetics of place. At first such a project doesn’t neatly allow you to share individual poems very easily.
However, in June 2019 I was part of The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics’ weekend conference Expressing the Earth in the Year of Indigenous Languages – at Wiston Lodge, near Biggar, Scotland. Here I met and listened to a bunch of lovely people, and presented ‘Paper River, Knotted River’ a poetry film and a prose and poetry chapter excerpt from Tree. It was actually billed as:
TREE: Sarah Tremlett The River We Worked – Devon – Discovering identity through the poetics of ancestral place. The project’s premiere will include a five-minute poetry film and a read extract of documented facts and prose poetry, focusing on the Edwardian era, and the River Exe (and Culm) near Exeter.
I also presented the same project but in a different way, at MIX Experiential Storytelling conference in July 2019, and each venue had their own journal to contribute to – Stravaig 8 and The International Journal of Creative Media Research. I have attached my paper for The International Journal of Creative Media Research as it expands more on my approach to the subject, as well as including the creative responses to research as poetry and poetry film.
In April, 2021, in the Reconnections curation for LYRA poetry festival, I presented a screening of family history poetry films: the extraordinary narrative Lievito Madre (Mother Dough), 2020, Italy/Germany, by Katzbach film, with poet Francesco Garbo and director Pierluigi Muscolino; Bloodlines, 2020, UK by prize-winning poet Sarah Wimbush and young, talented filmmaker Isobel Turner; and Muirburn, 2019, by phenomenal poet Yvonne Reddick, with leading poetry filmmaker Helmie Stil. I also included two of my own films: one on a mediaeval ancestor – Firewash, which is also in Earth Lines poetry anthology of geopoetics and geopoetry (Edinburgh Geological Society, October, 2021); and a commission for Brighton University’s Centre for Arts and Wellbeing, for poet Helen Johnson’s poem ‘Bird Poem’ – see LYRA Reconnections Family History Poetry Film screening, Bristol, April, 2021 to watch all these films.
Each part of Tree progresses at different rates, where some chapters have the footage ready to edit, and the poem written, whilst others are waiting to be given further thought. I hope to set aside a block of time to give the project more structure in the next year.
I have now added the poem and poetry film Firewash about visiting the site of a mediaeval mining ancestor in Cornwall during a gale. The poem is in the Geopoetry and Geopoetics collection Earth Lines from Edinburgh Geological Society. This book is a fine example of cross-genre creativity, the first of its kind, and a valuable read for those interested in all aspects of poetry from the planet.
Here is a developing collection of examples of leading poetry filmmakers’ work in this genre.
LEADING EXAMPLES OF FAMILY HISTORY POETRY FILMS
Background Process Notes
On making poetry films about family
I first became interested in combining words and moving images as part of a long term project in my studio work in which I was exploring memories from my childhood, specifically those involving my coal-miner grandfather. Previously, I had made work in sculpture, painting, and installation along these themes, but film plus voice seemed like a fruitful way to create narrative structures while still retaining a poetic sensibility.
With a series of stop motion animations I made between 2010 and 2015, the voiceover used fragments of memoir material that could be categorised as prose poetry or “flash” non-fiction. The sound was added after the films were edited, and rather than matching the words to the images, they provide a parallel narrative, adding a complementary voice rather than an illustrative one.
Also by Philip and first shown at the first Liberated Words screening in 2012.
From Father to Daughter: The Cuba Film
One exciting example – entitled Cuba – has been provided by two Houston-based Americans – writer, performer and filmmaker Margo Stutts Toombs and Dr Germaine Burchard Welch, who is a writer of academic research, prose and poetry. In this extraordinary account we learn of Germaine’s enigmatic father’s life as a photojournalist during the 1950s and meeting Fidel Castro. Germaine and Margo have contributed notes on their particular approach, and they provide an insider’s look into the making of a family history film with pre-existing footage.
I Wish We’d Ever Met
poem and voice: Derek Stanley
filmmaker: Diana Taylor
Cries and Whispers
Spanish filmmaker Eduardo Yagüe provides a fascinating background to his extraordinary interpretation of the poem by translator and poet Jean Morris. This is a highly imaginative form of family history poetry film, and I am proud and pleased that Eduardo has allowed me to use a still from the film for our family history section at Liberated Words and on Vimeo.
Dad by Numbers
Australian Dr Diane Charleson, Senior Lecturer at the National School of Arts at the Australian Catholic University has created a layered testimony to a father’s life in this documentary style film based on a poem by Australian poet Carolyn Masel.
Carolyn has included revealing process notes which really help explain her rationale behind writing the poem.
Diane has also kindly provided interesting notes Dad by Numbers Process which reveal a great deal about the making of the film. Diane is experienced in the genre, having written Filmmaking as Research by Palgrave Macmillan https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030246341
The book examines the challenges often experienced by film practitioners who find themselves researching within the academy, either as students or academics. In light of this the author presents her own journey from practitioner to researcher as a lens. A great purchase for any would-be family history poetry filmmakers.
by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven.
Rodeo Days is about my Australian ancestry and identity, employing archival footage of 20th century rural life, given vibrant expression in a hybrid of experimental film, spoken word and music video. It is one of many internet collaborations over more than a decade with electronic music producer, Paul Foster, aka DXIII, in Wales.
My father and his brothers and sisters lived through desperate poverty during a childhood in the Depression-era of the 1930s. Their father abandoned the family for mysterious reasons, leaving their mother to take care of all six children alone and without work.
As the boys reached early adulthood, they took to the rodeo circuit, travelling wide distances between events, a life on the road. Talented horsemen, they became well-known as rodeo champions.
Rodeo was powerfully enticing to poor country men, for its promise of status they were sorely lacking, and because of the money on offer. Prizes at rodeo events were sometimes 20 times the average wage for a rural worker. In the 1930s, crowds at these events could number up to 65,000 people.
Rodeo Days reflects what I experienced of family life in my childhood, the vibrancies and darknesses. It contains my impressions of a history of anglo-Australian society, and is an exploration of my place in it.
Video, voice, words: Marie Craven
Music: Paul Foster
Here I Stand
The video poem Here I Stand was commissioned by the Executive Office of Northern Ireland as a public artwork to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. I was given a very specific brief – to be sensitive to subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Due to the pandemic, the film was launched online by the Executive Office on Holocaust Memorial Day.
The commission was the culmination of many years of work and research. In 2017 I travelled to Auschwitz with my 85-year-old Hungarian mother, who was a child witness of the Holocaust. Our journey, entering that place of Hell, gave my mother a sense of closure and I wanted to express this in the video poem. It is the story of a mother and a child – based on a survivor’s story. The mother listens to her intuition which is at odds with her motherly instincts to keep her child by herself, and she saves his life, whilst losing hers. I was deeply touched by this story of a Hungarian boy, Ivor Perl, and the enormous inner conflict this woman had to deal with within a few seconds and her power. It gave me deep satisfaction that the mother’s grandchild, David Pearl, contacted me after the launch, to thank me for making a beautiful film poem about his father’s story.
The visual concept, the names and faces, the elements of the film were shot in the Shoah Museum in Paris and in the Holocaust Museum in Budapest, using footage from Yad Vashem in Israel, as well as archive footage of the liberation. Two actors, Sinead Lunny and Jason Benson recite the poem, one in the voice of the mother, the other in the voice of the son, looking back. The images as well as the voices are layered. The quotes by survivors provide breathing space, like the stanza breaks in a poem, time to reflect. The quote from the Bible represents the turning point from death to birth, or the liberation. In these “stanzas” the visual element is a journey, starting from the names and photographed faces of the victims and culminating in the live faces of survivors of genocides from Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.
The last section of the video poem was shot in the Memorial Garden of the Great Synagogue in Budapest, the former centre of the ghetto. In the final frames a metallic memorial tree transforms into a live olive tree representing peace and life. This was the message I got from the survivors, who, by stressing that we should not forget, want to educate humanity to prevent history repeating itself.
The music, Miserere Mei Deus (arranged by Michael McGlynn) was performed by the Irish choir ensemble ANÚNA.
Csilla sent me details of making the film, and afterwards I felt there was something more she might want to add. She then told me she had visited Auschwitz in 2018 with her 85-year-old mother who had been a child witness of the Holocaust. A deeply emotional account of this trip is also included entitled ‘Reflecting on Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness’ which was originally published in Ploughshares at Emerson College, 29/10/2018. We also learn about the enormity of a choice Csilla herself had to make, as a teenager in relation to her mother, and her country. Today such a decision requires a bravery and belief foreign to most of us. But it also explains how she was the perfect author for retelling this tragic incident during WWII. So much can be written on this subject, perhaps it is best to begin by reflecting on what this six-minute film teaches, and also brings out in each of us.
NOTE: The Nobel Prize-winning, semi-autobiographical novel Fatelessness (1975), by Hungarian author Imre Kertész centres on his memories of being deported in 1944, aged 14, to Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.