The following article introduces a very interesting project originally developed in the Netherlands and subsequently adapted in Belgium. ‘Dicht/Vorm’ is a crossover between poetry and animated film in which filmmakers were invited to create a filmed version of the poem of their choice.
This article was first published in Flemish on our Belgian partner platform www.kortfilm.be. In her review, Ils Huygens, editor of kortfilm.be, introduces the project and its background. She looks in particular at issues and aspects arising from the confrontation between filmmakers and poets that were explored in a panel discussion at the Animafestival in Brussels.
Dicht/Vorm: The Netherlands
Dicht/Vorm wants to create a platform for the confrontation between poetry and animated film, by inviting animators to make a visual reflection inspired by a poem. The idea was originally developed by Dutch production company Il Luster, which specializes in high-quality animation films. The Dicht/Vorm project consists of two series of short animated films of two minutes each. The series entitled ‘Modern’ focuses on contemporary Dutch poetry, whereas the ‘Klassiekers’ series visualizes ten highlights from the history of Dutch poetry. For ‘Klassiekers’, filmmakers were asked to look for inspiration not only in the poem but also in the style and art historical context of the time. The project had a highly multi-medial character: the two series are not only distributed on DVD but can also be watched entirely on the website www.dichtvorm.nl or can be downloaded via podcast. The website also provides a wide range of background information on films, filmmakers, poems and poets.
One of the main goals of the Dicht/Vorm project was to serve educational purposes, so for both DVD’s an accompanying educational package was developed. Thanks to its crossover nature, the project allows for different educational themes and approaches (literary history, art history, film analysis, animation techniques). The main goal is to enhance debate, inciting discussions on style and possible interpretations of both poem and film. In the Netherlands, these educational packages have proven to be very popular; and in 2004 the Modern series was awarded the Comenius Medal for best European educational multimedia project.
As for the films, they certainly surmount their educational value. The confrontation between word and image results in a wide variety of films, ranging from slightly obvious to highly original interpretations. The fact that the producers explicitly wanted to show the widest possible array of existing animation techniques is another aspect that adds to the diversity in style.
In the Brussels-based production company S.O.I.L., which had already cooperated with Il Luster in the past, the idea started growing of launching a similar project in Flanders. The concept was slightly changed however, focusing on the one hand more on the creation of opportunities for young animators, and on the other hand providing a representative overview of Flemish poetry; and of course putting both media in the spotlight at the same time. In December 2006, the Belgian series was released during the International Short Film Festival in Leuven. Later it was also presented at the Anima festival in Brussels, and some of the films were even selected for the 2007 edition of the animation festival in Annecy.
The Netherlands versus Belgium
At the start of the S.O.I.L. project, Belgian literary theorist and poet Geert Buelens was invited to make a first rough selection of contemporary Flemish poems on the basis of two guidelines: the poets in question should not be older than 50, and the selection should represent the diversity of Flemish poetry today. In a second stage, S.O.I.L. contacted every animation maker who had finished animated film studies in the last five years, and introduced them to the project through collective presentations in a number of cities. Filmmakers interested in the project were given all of the 100 selected poems « without the names of the respective authors – and were asked to select one poem for which they would like to produce a visual counterpart.
The Flemish project diverges from the Dutch series not only in concept, but also in context. For one thing, the poetry in each country is totally different in style. Modern Dutch poetry is marked by its performative nature, highly influenced by the arts of cabaret, and with a focus on the interplay between words and sounds. Flanders has a more cathartic, existential tradition. According to poet Marc Van Tongele, performative poetry – though it was in vogue for a short while after the success of Paul Van Ostaijen – has never really broken through in Belgium.*
Another difference is the status accorded to poetry, which, in the words of Tom Van de Voorde (Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren), is “a bit dusty” as far as Flanders is concerned. The Netherlands however had already seen other initiatives that tried to make poetry more accessible for a wide audience. For instance there was a project where poetry was painted on garbage trucks. But these ideas tend to slip all too easily into populist events (like Dichter des Vaderlands or Dag van de Poí«zie). In Flanders, such projects are still rather rare, although there seems to be a slight change for the better, as proven by the recent introduction of a weekly poetry item called ‘Vrienden van de Poí«zie’ (Friend of Poetry) in the extremely popular human interest program ‘Man Bijt Hond’ (Man Bites Dog), which runs on the public network. Projects like Dicht/Vorm might facilitate a further opening.
The confrontation between poet and filmmaker
One of the most difficult aspects of the contemporary Dicht/Vorm series is having to work with authors who are still alive. Quality control becomes a very tricky issue. Poet Jo Govaerts acknowledges that this was one of her biggest fears: ‘Film is such a different medium; I can’t say very much about it myself, but suppose I wouldn’t have liked the film at all, I would have been very unhappy.’ Yet she admits being pleasantly surprised by the final result. ‘I was amazed by the film and by the sophisticated interpretation it made of the poem. I could not have come up with these images myself but they are a perfect translation of my thoughts’. The nuances I intended can also be found in the film. But at the same time, it is still very different because film is such a different medium.’
But of course the confrontation can also turn out less pleasant. Suppose the filmmaker gives an interpretation to the poem that differs entirely from what the poet intended. Would that be problematic? For Flemish producer Geert Van Goethem, it would not, since precisely the autonomy of the filmmaker in the process of making the interpretation is important and guarantees a certain liberation of the poem. From the side of the filmmakers, animator Wouter Sel finds that his contribution to the project has added a new dimension to his own work. He explains that animation studies keeps a strong focus on the film as a narrative construct, in the sense of creating a certain situation and introducing a character into it. While working on Dicht/Vorm he learned to work from a different approach, starting out from the image rather than from a narrative set-up.
Poet Marc Van Tongele wonders whether the concept would not have been more interesting if it had followed a different method. Not starting out from a literary text and then letting someone ‘fill in the pictures’, but putting poets and filmmakers together from the outset. According to Van Tongele this would reduce the discrepancy between word and image and allow for even more freedom. But colleague Jo Govaerts immediately responds that this would not have worked for her. ‘If I would have been involved in the process of making the film, it would not have turned out very well. The result of such co-operation between poet and filmmaker is neither a good film nor a good poem, but two compromises.’ Wouter Sel concurs. For him as a filmmaker, it was very important to appropriate the poem without having the author’s vision immediately imposed on the creative process. He agrees that a co-operation would probably end up as a rather “weak symbiosis”.
The confrontation between word and image
Many of the films remain highly dominated by the text and try to incorporate the poem’s words in their film, sometimes at any cost. Some of the filmmakers, however, have chosen deliberately not to do so (for example ‘Adembeneming’) and perhaps it is only there that a really interesting confrontation comes into being. This way, the viewer is also less focused on the poem’s text and more on the visual aspect and atmosphere created. It is of course not only the words that make a poem. Rhythm, cadence, composition, different tones of sound and the establishment of a certain mood are all equally important elements that can be put to use in a visual interpretation. Still, the danger of being merely ‘illustrated poetry’ definitely haunts some of the films. This was certainly the case for almost the whole of the Dutch Klassiekers series, where the poem«s text is read out loud in a voice-over that accompanies the images.
On the other hand, in the Klassiekers series this also led to some unusual interpretations that came out of external information surrounding the poem. For instance, the film made for the poem ‘Zie je ik hou van je’ (See You I love You), which seems at first glance to be very romantic, was reworked by the filmmaker into an expression of obsession, resulting from the knowledge that the poet had gone insane in his later life. This kind of contrasting effect can have unexpectedly interesting results but these sorts of experiments are rather rare. Il Luster explains that the dominance of the text in the Klassiekers series has to do with its different educational goal. Whereas the Modern series had the intention of provoking playful discussion, the Klassiekers series was more focused on providing information about the time and context of poem and poet. Part of its function was to draw renewed attention to the history of national art and poetry, two disciplines that are somewhat neglected in the contemporary Dutch educational curriculum.
Perhaps the most problematic issue concerning the confrontation of word and image is the power of images. Whereas a filmmaker produces images to call up certain ideas, the poet produces words by which he wants to evoke certain images. A poem needs the reader’s imagination, whereas an image is already an interpretation with a highly commanding effect. One need only think of literary adaptations in cinema. The film quickly tends to take over the book and our imagination is adjusted to the images we saw. In a poem, the reader has to actively bring in his own creativity and becomes a co-creator. According to Jo Govaerts, poetry requires a different kind of attitude: “Some people do not need the drawing, others do.” This is precisely because words leave more open to the imagination and for her this means they can have a much stronger effect than images.
S.O.I.L however begs to differ and thinks of the visual translation of a poem as a kind of liberation, in the sense that one interpretation leads to another and so on. Especially in the educational part of the project, they emphasize the fact that each film is only one possible reading out of many. Tom Van de Voorde objects and says that the liberating effect does not really work in the opposite direction. When you return to the text after having seen the film, it is very difficult to erase the images from the mind.
Multidisciplinary yes, but who’s paying?
Another contemporary issue brought to light in the production process of the Dicht/Vorm project is the multidisciplinary trend in contemporary art, and more specifically, the incapacity of institutional organs to deal with these new crossover tendencies. In theory, the Flemish Administration promotes these kinds of multimedia or interdisciplinary projects, yet when it comes to concrete demands for money, things quickly become more complicated. The Fonds voor Letteren (Flemish Literary Foundation), for instance, was highly interested in the project but institutionally simply unable to deal with it. Strictly speaking, they occupy themselves with ‘literary productions’ and not with cinema. The only possibility they saw to support the project was to provide translations of the different poems so the project could be promoted internationally. More structural funding was simply impossible. The VAF (Flemish Audiovisual Fund) did not really have a problem providing funding since the finished products are indeed audiovisual creations. S.O.I.L points out that to further elaborate this project more structural support is necessary, but frankly they just do not know where to turn. Either you belong to the audiovisual arts, to theatrical and performing arts, or to literary arts. In contemporary art production, however, these institutional subdivisions seem hardly tenable anymore and can have a very counterproductive effect. But that of course is yet another subject matter to tackle.
Ils Huygens (editor-in-chief, kortfilm.be, Brussels)
*All quotations were noted during a discussion on the Dicht/Vorm project that took place during the Animafestival in Brussels, in February 2007. The discussion was moderated by Walter Provo (IAK) and the participants were:
– producers Geert Van Goethem (S.O.I.L.), Arnoud Rijken and Michiel Snijders (Il Luster)
– Tom Van de Voorde (head of the poetry department of the Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren)
– poets Erik Spinoy, Marc Van Tongele, Jo Govaerts (Flanders) and Ruben Van Gogh (the Netherlands)
– filmmakers Wouter Sel and Kris Genijn (Flanders), Sander Alt and Lucette Braune (the Netherlands)