Friday, 29 June 2012

Word up: "We Are Poets"

The British doc We Are Poets fits snugly within a certain template - it's one from the Spellbound school, employing some very familiar tactics to get us to cheer for its designated underdogs - but, in its incidental moments, it offers valuable glimpses of an emergent, vocal counterculture. Its subjects are six black, Muslim and mixed-race teens from Leeds, heading to the "Brave New Voices" poetry slam in Washington, D.C.. Slam poetry, for the uninitiated, is meant to be performed; it's less genteel than what its practitioners call "page poetry". You may be reminded of the rap battles seen in the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile and elsewhere, though the specifically Northern brogues and rhythms being showcased here also can't help but recall our own John Cooper Clarke. (Marc Levin's 1998 drama Slam was an indie take on the American scene; that film's star Saul Williams is observed mentoring these teenagers at one point.)

The young women of the team, hardened by the struggle to make themselves heard, are fierce and smart-mouthed - you fear for any boys who might cross them on this minibus trip - while their male counterparts, though outwardly more passive, themselves have something interesting going on. Saju, who turned to slam poetry as a way of making sense of his delinquent past, gleefully raps in Bangladeshi for the benefit of the cameras; Joseph, a happy-go-lucky SF aficionado, smiles his way through a description of the abuse he received from black contemporaries for not being black enough. Common themes emerge: operating under no apparent constraints or censorship, the teenagers are encouraged to write about race and sex and violence, their own bruising personal experience. Young Azalia filters adolescent sex through the framework of well-known biscuits, in a manner very nearly as frank as her almost-namesake Ms. Banks; in a controversial piece titled "America", Maryam, a Muslim poet, compares a lover to an occupying force. We hear in their words a fear of being plundered or exploited for who they are and where they come from; writing this stuff down, and then spitting it out, gives them an element of control.

The film dips in its second act, once these personalities have been set up, as the kids retreat into rehearsals or seminars, and we wait for them to enter the crucible of the competition arena; the novice directors, Alex Ramseyer-Bache and Daniel Lucchesi, also paint a rather simplistic, awestruck contrast between grim, forbidding inner-city Britain and a vibrant, jumping America where there appears to be a party on every streetcorner. (This will doubtless play better over there than it will back home.) Still, the contest itself, with its impromptu Maori hakas, dancing in the aisles and major 'froage, makes for a wilder experience than the sedate academic circles Spellbound spun in, and if We Are Poets doesn't quite achieve the narrative tension of its predecessor - final titles float the notion the directors may just have gone to Washington in the wrong year - you could argue the slam's result doesn't matter as much as the raising of consciousness, the finding of a voice. At the very least, it's good to know there are words coming out of Leeds more resonant, relevant and carefully chosen than those selected by, for example, Chris Moyles.

We Are Poets is touring selected cinemas: further details can be found here.  

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