Poetry of Witness (2015)

[60 minutes]

A Film by Billy Tooma & Anthony Cirilo

Associate Producer - David Berry

Interviews with Carolyn Forché, Saghi Ghahraman, Fady Joudah,
Neil J. Kressel, Claudia Serea, Mario Susko, Bruce Weigl, Duncan Wu

Original Artwork by Jimmy Buitrago

Original Score Composed by Will Lewis


This film documents the struggle of six contemporary poets who have faced the duress of war, exile, and human rights violations to give voice to their experiences while wrestling with the complex moral quandaries of artistic production, memory, and trauma. The poets: Carolyn Forché (Salvadoran Civil War), Saghi Ghahraman (Iranian Revolution), Fady Joudah (Doctors Without Borders), Claudia Serea (Socialist Republic of Romania), Mario Susko (Bosnian War), and Bruce Weigl (Vietnam War) offer first-person accounts of how their experiences as soldier, activist, doctor, and survivor imprint their poetry as evidence of those conflicts, rather than as representations of them.

Along the way, the poets read from their work and all poems are accompanied by original artwork by Jimmy Buitrago, as well as a musical score by Will Lewis. Thus, the story is told both through an evolving conversation with the poets, as well as through musical and visual interpretations of the poems, evolving the story from a contextualization of the term “poetry of witness” to thematic conversations around the questions of memory and imagination, to truth and the ethics of identity, to the struggle for freedom of speech and the rights to one’s own body. Duncan Wu (Georgetown University) and Neil J. Kressel (William Paterson University) help to contextualize these discussions throughout with historical and psychoanalytic perspectives.

The film can be seen as an extension of the decades-long work Forché has conducted in the subject, beginning with her landmark anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness (1993). Coinciding with the publication of a new anthology (co-edited by Forché and Wu), Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001 (2014), this documentary brings the conversation to a wider audience.


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