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Creativity Brews at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival
By Erica Goss

          I’m sitting in a café across the street from the Babylon Theater in Berlin with my new friends Claudia, Cheryl, and Bettina. It’s a misty fall evening, and we’re talking about sauerkraut. Yes, sauerkraut. Seems everyone in Berlin has a crock of it fermenting in the cellar, and everyone has her own treasured family recipe.

          “Champagne!” asserts Bettina. Her girlfriend shakes her head. In German, she says, “No, you don’t add any liquid. Cabbage makes its own.” Bettina insists that champagne is the secret, crucial ingredient to good sauerkraut. “You need a special crock and a stone. In Fall, slice the cabbage very thin, add salt, put the stone on top, and wait two weeks.” The two women give each other a look, then rejoin the conversation, which has moved on to a comparison of the various odors that kimchi and sauerkraut emit.

          I’m enjoying this discussion of German cookery, but I didn’t come to Berlin to swap recipes. I’m here for the 2014 Zebra Poetry Film Festival, the largest of its kind. Every two years, people from all over the world come to Berlin for four days of the decidedly non-mainstream art form of poetry film. The films range from high-end, big-budget affairs to ones painstakingly made by just one person. You never know which film will win, and that’s part of the fun.

          The morning of the festival, I’d woken to the view of Berlin’s Fernsehturm, the giant, Sputnik-inspired TV tower that dominates the sky. Nicknamed “Alex,” as it sits in the Alexander Square, the tower is the tallest structure in Germany. Completed in 1969, it looms over this ancient city, looking retro and space-age at the same time.

          Now it’s opening night, and my friends and I cross the street and buy our tickets. The crowd is an artsy one: lots of eyeliner and tattoos, lots of black. I hear German and English predominantly, but I recognize Polish, Swedish, and Spanish as well. The people waiting to get into the opening ceremony are a youngish lot, but there are plenty of us over-forty types as well. The doors open, and we file into the main theater for the opening ceremony: highlights of the festival to come, a poetry reading in Norwegian, and accompaniment from the Babylon’s one-of-a-kind silent film organ.

          When I first came here two years ago, I knew exactly no one. Now, however, I’m eager to connect with the creative people I’ve met since then. In addition, I welcome any excuse to visit the sprawling, messy, graffiti-covered town of Berlin, with its daredevil bicyclers, chain-smoking pedestrians, and history dating back to the 12th century. My grandparents met here in the late 1920s during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Then, as now, Berlin was known as a sophisticated and tolerant world city.

          The neighborhood surrounding the Babylon Theater is, to say the least, eclectic. The theater, which first opened in 1929, sits on the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a historic location that houses the Volksbühne (People’s Theater). Walking to the Babylon from my hotel after a breakfast of coffee, yogurt, and four different kinds of bread (the Paleo diet is unknown here), I pass a fancy home appliance store, a sex shop, several cafes, and McDonald’s Deutschland. The neighborhood, known as Mitte, is part of the former East Berlin and one of the most interesting places in town to visit.

          It’s fitting, then, that a film festival as unconventional as Zebra happens in this part of the city. It’s a well-known place to party, and since there is no mandatory closing hour for Berlin’s bars and clubs, the streets are lively into the small hours. The opening night crowd is excited and chatty, holding glasses of wine and beer as they settle into their seats. It’s clear the audience for video poetry is growing.

          Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, the festival’s artistic director, told me: “The recent festival has shown us that the quality of these poetry films is very high. We received so many amazing films that the decision about which films to place in the competition was very difficult.” Filmmakers and poets from 70 countries submitted 770 films for consideration. From these films, Zebra created a 4-day festival showing over 150 films, with 29 nominated for the competition.

          Nissmah Roshdy won the 2014 Zebra Poetry Film Festival for Best Poetry Film with The Dice Player, based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish.The Dice Player is an example of a self-made poetry video beating out the big productions. I interviewed Nissmah for Moving Poems Magazine, and she told me that “I just wanted to get an ‘A’ on my class project!”

          The following five videos represent the diversity of the festival’s offerings:

Ice Hotel
: James Starkie, UK. Poem: "Ice Hotel" by Gaia Holmes.

Love in the Age of the EU
: Maciej Piatek, Poland/UK. Poem: "Love in the Age of the EU" by Björn Kuhligk.

: Andy Bonjour, US. Poem: "Embroidered" by Andy Bonjour.

This World (Ten Świat): Zbigniew Czapla, Poland. Poem: "Ten świat" by Czeslaw Milosz.

The Royal Oak: Sandra Salter and Meg Bisineer. Poem by Benedict Newbery.

          I am lucky enough to have one of my own projects, 12 Moons, a series of twelve videos based on twelve of my poems, shown at this festival. Belgian video artist Swoon (Marc Neys) created the videos. You can watch 12 Moons here:

          In addition to showing films, the festival includes several lectures. At “Panel Discussion on Poetry Films in the Digital World,” poet and filmmaker Alice Lyons of Ireland makes the bold claim that “the future of poetry is in film.” One question that comes up often at the festival, both in this panel and in informal discussions, is copyright. How can intellectual property be protected? No one really seems to know, but at a panel discussion with the sobering title “Poetry Film and the Law,” lawyers discuss legal issues having to do with the production and distribution of poetry films. The consensus is that registering poems, films, and sound under Creative Commons takes care of 99% of most copyright issues, but for the rest, one might need a lawyer.

          As the festival winds down, I feel enriched and inspired. Four days with artists, poets, and filmmakers stirred me up and inspired a lot of raw material, judging by my pages of notes, sketches, and over two hundred photographs. As I board the plane for home, I feel ideas brewing in my brain. I think of the crocks of sauerkraut fermenting in basements all over the city. Maybe I did come to Berlin to swap recipes, after all.

Erica Goss is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA. She is the author of Wild Place (Finishing Line Press) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (PushPen Press). Her poems, reviews, and articles appear widely. Please visit her at:

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