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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Katja Esson--'Poetry of Resilience'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 12 through September 1 in New York City and August 19 through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Katja Esson, director/producer/writer of Poetry of Resilience.

Synopsis: Poetry of Resilience is a documentary about six poets from around the world who survived some of the worst political atrocities of the 20th Century: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China's Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan genocide and the Iranian Revolution. By summoning the creative voice of poetry to tell stories of survival and witness, each reclaims humanity and dignity in the wake of some of history's most dehumanizing circumstances. With grace and humor, the film explores language as an internal means of survival--for the poet and the readers of poems.


Poetry of Resilience


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Katja Esson: My film education started in fiction. But when I moved to New York, I saw a million stories of real people all around me. My first short doc, Vertical Traveler, is about an "elevator man" and New York City's unique relationship with elevators. Shortly after, I made Ferry Tales, about sisterhood in the Staten Island Ferry bathroom. My two most recent documentaries, Latching On, about the politics of breastfeeding in America, and Skydancer, about Mohawk Indian ironworkers, also take place in New York. Having maintained the eye of an outsider, I have a different perspective on many things. When 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.

Poetry of Resilience is very different in that regard. It feels like a culmination of all the work I have done so far.


IDA: What inspired you to make Poetry of Resilience?

KE: 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 on stage and spoke not so much about the atrocities they endured but rather about the will to survive spiritually and artistically, I knew that this was a film I needed to make.

Making documentaries satisfies my deepest hunger for discovering who we are and what makes us human.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

KE: 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?

The making of the film has taken me on a five-year journey of discovery on which I feel that 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.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change of the course of the pre-production, production and post-production process?

KE: The film was planned as a feature film, with the individual stories of survival and the historical and political backgrounds taking up a much larger part. But during editing,  a fact became so painfully clear for me: History repeats itself. The biggest horror is how "similar" all these atrocities really are. And how we keep saying "never again" and then there is always an "again." So the focus shifted. Evil has no name and no country. And the documentary short became the perfect frame for the film.


IDA: As you have screened Poetry of Resilience--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What was the most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

KE: I know that I was tackling something that had 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--interestingly enough, very different ones; some might love what others absolute hate.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspiration for you?

KE: I am inspired by other artwork, like music or in this case, by poems. But my biggest inspiration comes from people--people who then often end up in my films.


Poetry of Resilience will be screening August 19 through 26 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Poetry of Resilience and the rest of the films in the DocuWeeks Los Angeles Shorts Program, click here.