Watching Poetry Films: ‘Arab Countries Were the Only Ones Not Taking Part’

Syrian-born Palestinian poet Ghayath al-Madhoun is one of the few who write in Arabic to have achieved international acclaim in the art of poetry filmmaking:

There are others who have been trying their hand at poetry films. Mariam Ferjani made a screen adaptation of the short poem “Shitwi” by Youssef Rakha, which was featured on Moving Poems. Nissmah Roshdy made a popular adaptation of Mahmoud Darwish’s “The Dice Player” as a student at Cairo’s GUC, and Reel Festivals has also sponsored the creation of Arabic poetry films.

Ghayath al-Madhoun
Ghayath al-Madhoun

But, among Arabic-language poets, Ghayath al-Madhoun has had perhaps the most sustained engagement with poetry films. He answered a few questions about his own work and the status of poetry films in Arabic.

ArabLit: How did you start making poetry films?

Ghayath al-Madhoun: The first film was in 2009. [The Swedish poet] Marie [Silkeberg] made a book about destruction, and she made films about Hiroshima and Hanoi and Aushwitz.

She asked around seventeen poets from all over the world to write texts about destruction. And when she finished the book, she put the text together with a CD with the book, and she sent it to the publishing house.

Then the [Operation Cast Lead] attack happened in Gaza.

In that year, I arrived in Sweden, at the end of 2008, like two months before the attack. And when she saw the attack on Gaza, she asked the publisher to stop publishing the book. Then she called me and asked me if I can write a text about Gaza to add it to the book, and she made the film number four.

Then, she made the poem-film, and she sent the film to many poetry film festivals. And I got an email from Zebra Poetry Film Festival, that this film was chosen to be in the competition. That email changed me a lot. Because, if I can remember, it says something like this, ‘We chose your film, along with another twenty-five films, from 950 films from 85 countries.”

I read the email several times, and then I understood something: That there are 950 poets making poetry films from 85 countries. And it was the first time in my whole life I heard about it. It was like a big movement in the world. And then I began to check and I found that the Arab countries were the only ones that were not taking part.

AL: When was this?

GM: 2010. Because the poetry film festival happens every two years. It’s the biggest poetry film festival in the world.

So I began to think about it.

till-damaskus_150And when Marie and I decided to work together to do the book Til Damaskus, we decided to make poetry films. For the first film, “The City,” she wanted to buy a USB. And I said, No. If we buy a USB, we will be professionals.

She told me, But it’s only three dollars!


I will tell you exactly my idea about these things, and I will tell you what I told her. If we buy this USB, then we will be professional filmmakers. And we will forget that we are poets. For me, it is poetry film, with the poetry before the film.

It’s a new way of publishing poetry. I publish my poetry in a book, in a magazine, in newspaper, and I read it in the poetry evenings in the festivals. And this is a new way to publish poetry, for people who didn’t read, or they like these things more. So it is not more than that.

In the second film, “Your Memory is My Freedom,” we bought some stuff. We couldn’t make the film without buying a recorder and such. But still, I argued. And then we participated in many poetry film festivals and we got prizes, but then in 2012, we participated again in the Zebra Poetry Festival, and they invited me to read poetry.

But I was so angry. Because all the jury was professional filmmakers. There were no poets. So how could we call this a poetry film festival if the people who decide it are filmmakers? And yes, the result was that all the films that won that year were the well-made, well-produced.

In my reading, I told them, “Listen to me, I want to say something. A person like me, who is a poet, he can go and study in the university, and be a filmmaker, but none of you can be a poet. Never. Ever.”

So I hope for this year, they will change something, they will put 50 percent filmmakers and 50 percent poets. In short, the poems now that are winning are any poem that is blah, blah blah, mostly the poems that people like, and it should be animation. So I began to hate the animated films.

AL: What’s the most recent poem-film that you worked on?

GM: The last film we made like three or four weeks ago, and this is “The Celebration.” 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.

AL: You want to keep making poetry films?

GM: I don’t want to be a professional filmmaker. I don’t care about the rules. Many people tell me, ‘You should do like that, and like this,’ and I didn’t follow that.

AL: What about other poetry films in Arabic?

GM: They are not crazy. They took the idea that the poem film should be a film. I remember the first time I showed a friend [one of my poem films], and he told me, “Where are the actors?” when he saw it.

 There is something classic inside us — conservative. Always following the rules, a beginning and a middle, and there is a story, and everything is perfect. I don’t like that.

The problem is — when I go to the poetry film festival and I saw the films, they are very crazy. As crazy as an art film. There are mad people who make these things. But still, the Arabs — they follow the rules. They are so classic. There is something classic inside us — conservative. Always following the rules, a beginning and a middle, and there is a story, and everything is perfect. I don’t like that.

I prefer what is happening Latin American and Asia more.

AL: You’ve not seen any Arabic poetry films that you liked?

GM: I don’t know, when I was in the Zebra Poetry Festival, they showed a film from Egypt, but it was so classic.

The poetry film, it’s related to the art film. Before, it was only for the rich people to make films. Now all the people have mobiles, have cameras, have recorders. And Final Cut — anyone can install it from the Internet. So anyone could make a poetry film or an art film.

So I think that the Arabs will begin to make good films when they have fast internet and begin to use the Mac, when Arabic is supported in Word. When we have the Mac, we can use Final Cut. When we use Final Cut, we can make films.

I don’t want to be stupid, but these are really simple things.

AL: You don’t like the animated poem-films?

GM: I really like animation. But when you go to a poetry film festival and you see that 99 percent of the films are made as animations only by professional people — where is the poet? The poets, they can’t make animations. But the poet, they can write a poem.

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.

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.

AL: How do you distribute your poetry films?

GM: I put them in YouTube and I made it a closed channel, and I sent the link to friends. But in this last film, I put it closed channel, and then I opened it.

The YouTube channel, it’s only to send the links for our friends. For example, I think the film “The City” participated in more than 150 film festivals.

AL: So these are mostly for film festivals and not the general public?

GM: And sometimes in our readings. We read on the stage and we show something through projectors, but yeah, it’s mostly for the people who like to hear poetry. And poetry film festivals, and there are a lot in the world.

AL: Why don’t you put them on YouTube so anyone can see them?

GM: Now I did that, now I opened all of them. Now if anyone searches for my name, they’ll find it.

I don’t know how it will end with me. I have a lot of ideas, I have a camera, and I have a zoom recorder, and at any moment, there is some poem I want to be on a film.

Watch filmpoems by al-Madhoun:

Al-Madhoun’s YouTube channel

The Celebration

Your Memory is My Freedom

The City

More of the interview with Ghayath al-Madhoun — about Syria, translating poetry, the collection Til Damaskus, and more — appearing soon, insha’allah.