In their debut We Are Poets, directors Alex Ramseyer-Bache & Daniel Lucchesi want to show you a beautiful, rough resurgence in performed poetry. Informed by their environment, defined by their culture, people are finding poetry, recording poetry, and performing poetry to other people. It's potent viewing, even if at times the six poets at the heart of the film can slip into easy clichés more comfortable in inspirational films like Coach Carter and Dead Poet's Society.
The documentary follows six poets, aged 16 to 19 years old, from the charity Leeds Young Authors in the months surrounding their participation in the Brave New Voices poetry slam in Washington. Asserting its focus early, the film opens with one of the poets Joseph Buckley reading "I Come From..." over slowed down tracking footage of Leeds' city centre, parks, and brick housed streets. Viewed through a blurred filter that accentuates the red colours in the brickwork, greys the sky, and brings the people into the fore, it establishes immediately that this is a film that brings people, young people, into sharp relief. It does it roughly but it does it earnestly.
These poets have a voice louder, stronger, and more articulate than is expected or that is ever credited to people of their age. And, by holding the camera slightly closer to their subject's faces than we're accustomed to, Ramseyer-Bache & Lucchesi put these teenagers front and centre, making them inescapable: forcing us to listen to their every word.
They tell us about their upbringings and their interests, their angers and the prejudices they face. For instance,16 year old Maryam Alam tells us when people see her in the street wearing a hijab veil they think they know something about her. But, she turns these thoughts into poems that puncture the perception: "And due to the fact I wear a veil, you assume I'm in some sort of exterior jail. But you fail to understand, I'm like Oprah: a liberated female. And, I'm sorry that I don't walk around half-naked, you see, I believe my body is sacred". Each of them are wry with their words, drawing on their culture, their city, and their politics, and it's fascinating to watch.
Of course, poetry has always been performed. Poets would sing it to other poets, to friends, family, and audiences, it was around before writing itself, but it's easy to forget it if you've never seen it. So as much as We Are Poets is about displaying these particular six it's also dismissing the idea that poetry is boring and dead, only to be consumed in the classroom. The resurgence emphasised in the film is put best by Saul Williams during an interview: "We are returning to something ancient".
These ideas of a strong-voiced generation of poets performing their work loudly are seeded before the transition to America but it is there that we see them excitingly take root. We're told 400 poets take part in the four day Brave New Voices poetry slam. The relatively few that we see are excellently selected to show the range of styles and cultures that inform their work. One girl blends song into her recitation, using the contrast of melody with harsh standard speech to tell a story about her mother who seems oblivious to her. A boy, shouts his poem whilst performing something like the haka dance. Another switches between English and Hebrew, all whilst maintaining the same rhythm. They're things you'll never hear in a school, that will never convey their performance simply in a written version.
So, for the large part the film is compelling viewing. Though, the let down is the journey structure that seems ill-fitting. Taking the six through the contest and trying to show them struggle to learn their poems and go through each round seemed unnecessary when what we're watching for is to hear the next person's poem. Every performance is raw and attractive, like something you've never seen or heard, so to spend time with such a familiar plot was disappointing as it felt like it was depriving us of more poems.
If you have any interest in poetry, hell, even if you actively dislike poetry, you should go out of your way to see this film because it might awaken you to a whole new view of it as an entertaining art. The structural problems are easily forgotten each time someone stands in front of the mic and belts out another beautiful stanza.
We Are Poets is going out on selected release from the 28 June. To find out more about the film and screenings go to the film's website.