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Rich Copley: Documentary maker moved by filming poets who survived hardships

Filmmaker Katja Esson will bring an in-progress version of her film, Poetry of Resilience, to the 2011 Kentucky Women Writers Conference.
Filmmaker Katja Esson will bring an in-progress version of her film, Poetry of Resilience, to the 2011 Kentucky Women Writers Conference.

The Kentucky Women Writers Conference will focus on film this week with a visit by Academy Award- nominated documentary writer and director Katja Esson.

The Oscar nomination, in 2004, was for one of her first efforts, the short-subject documentary Ferry Tales, which looked at the women who meet daily in the women's restroom on New York's Staten Island Ferry. Other films have included Vertical Traveler, about New York's relationship with elevators, and the critically acclaimed Hole in the Sky, about New York City five years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Esson comes to Kentucky with Poetry of Resilience, a documentary about poets who have endured devastating events, including the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

"I have been following her career for a while," says conference director Julie Kuzneski Wrinn. "I have been wanting to bring a greater emphasis on dramatic writing to the conference. It is tough to find women filmmakers who make films about women. While Poetry of Resilience is about women and men, its emphasis on poetry made it seem right for the conference."

Esson will screen Poetry of Resilience on Thursday night at The Kentucky Theatre. On Friday, she will lead a session on documentary versus narrative storytelling and will speak at the plenary luncheon.

Last week, Esson was in her native Germany, but we caught up with her via email. Here's the discussion:

Question: What led you to this topic of poets who have endured unspeakable hardships?

Answer: In September 2006, I was invited to Massachusetts to document a conference of poets from around the world. I have to admit, my first thought was, "Oh boy, filming people reading poetry. ... How boring!"

But as soon as these incredible poets — who are also survivors — stepped onstage and spoke not so much about the atrocities they endured but rather about the will to survive spiritually and artistically, I was hooked.

Making documentaries satisfies my deepest hunger for discovering who we are and what makes us human, and every single one of these poets spoke to that.

Q: What was your relationship to poetry before this film?

A: Before Poetry of Resilience, I saw poetry as something somewhat elitist, inaccessible, and I was intimidated by it.

When I heard these poets tell their stories through their poetry, something happened. I began to feel the power of language and how complex realities and emotions can be conveyed in a few lines. I began to see what it is about language itself that helps us be resilient as human beings.

Poetry and resilience are two powerful forces but very elusive. The poets' stories challenged me to find new ways of interweaving cinematic and written language, to find new forms of visual storytelling. While working on the film, I constantly battled two questions: What is the resilience of the human spirit? And can art (in this case poetry), as an expression of our common humanity, help transform lives?

Q: Can you identify a moment at that conference when you realized this could be a great film?

A: I remember during the conference, it felt like a major electrical spark when I heard Li-Young Lee's Self-Help for Fellow Refugees. That poem blew my mind, and especially the last lines ignited such desire in me to find "an answer," any answer — and I knew in this moment, I had to do this film.

What matters is this:

The kingdom of heaven is good.

But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good.

But living is better.

Alone in your favorite chair

with a book you enjoy

is fine. But spooning

is even better.

Q: You traveled to the places where some of the people in the film suffered. What were those experiences like? Were there places that were problematic to visit in terms of officials not wanting you to film, you and your subjects not being allowed in, or other difficulties?

A: Each location had its own difficulties for me.

In Rwanda, I could feel how fresh the horror was. It was overwhelming, the ... skulls and skeletons and mass graves. ... To keep on filming and keeping the necessary distance was very difficult.

In Poland, on the other hand, to stand in a field filled with stones, surrounded by a beautiful forest full of singing birds and to face — especially as a German — that this was the location of Treblinka, the Nazi death camp, had a special horror for me. Lillian Boraks- Nemetz, who survived the Holocaust, told me about an interview in which a journalist questioned: "Can we really write poems about the Holocaust?" German philosopher Theodore W. Adorno said: "To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric." I struggled a lot with this question and response during the filming of Poetry of Resilience.

The making of the film has taken me on a five-year journey of discovery on which I feel I experienced the best and worst of humankind.

The biggest challenge for me was to experience that my own belief in humanity was often shaken.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about poetry working on this film?

A: I knew that I was tackling something that has not been done before — in fact, many people warned me about making this kind of film about poetry. We just finished the film and only screened it at private screenings, but the reactions have amazed me. People suddenly can't get enough of the poetry. Everybody has been able to find connections in the film — interesting enough very different ones — some might love what others absolutely hate.

For me personally, poetry suddenly had a timeliness and urgency that I never thought possible. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said that "poetry is news," and I have to agree with him. Through poetry, my understanding of stories I thought I knew became totally enriched.

Q: This story will run on Sept. 11, so I'd like to ask you a couple questions about that with Hole in the Sky in mind. Having worked on that film about New York five years after 9/11, what are your thoughts 10 years after the attacks?

A: I was recently commissioned to be one of five directors for a five-part episode about the five boroughs of New York City, NY Confidential. All five episodes will air Sept 11 on the Franco-German cultural station ARTE. My episode is a portrait of Brooklyn.

Ten years after 9/11, I found a lot of delightfully tough and resilient Brooklynites, but then I was taken by surprise when these tough people started crying while talking about 9/11. The pain still runs deep for some people.

Q: What were some of the major discoveries you made in making Hole in the Sky that you had not previously known or thought about related to 9/11?

A: When working on Hole in the Sky, New York City was experiencing a boom. The newspapers wrote "comeback city" and "boomtown." My feeling at that time was that if I would peel away layer after layer, I would find a wound that is still very much open. So Hole in the Sky became a story of a remarkable recovery and a lingering trauma at the same time.

Q: In Hole in the Sky, Poetry of Resilience and some of your other films, you cover events and topics that have been covered many times before. How do you find unique angles for your films?

A: I have been in this country for 20 years and making my own films for 10 years. Having kept the eye of an outsider, I have a different perspective on many things. When my film Ferry Tales was all over the media, some reporters asked, "Why did it take a German director to discover something that was under our noses?" The answer is that distance and strangeness bring their own kind of focus. The Staten Island Ferry — let alone its ladies' room! — can be a mundane banality to New Yorkers, and a source of wonder to an outsider. Likewise for my very first documentary, Vertical Traveler. Elevators are such a normal part of daily life in Manhattan that nobody thinks twice about them. And the same applies to Latching-On — Politics of Breastfeeding in America. Manhattan's Upper West Side is the little-known location of Upper Breast Side, New York's only breastfeeding boutique. Those are the kinds of microcosms that interest me.

People often claim that my work offers "a quirky European sensibility to uniquely American topics." I bend the rules because when I look for emotional truth, I won't accept any formal constraints.

Q: As a filmmaker, what does it mean to you to have the words "Academy Award-nominated" usually precede your name?

A: Whenever I feel frustrated by the outside pressures on my work, I Google my name, and the "title" makes me feel gooood. (Esson inserted a smiley-face emoticon here.) Just kidding, but what it really does is open doors that might have been closed before.