Depicting poetry on film

Filmmaker Julie Ballands speaks with us about working with poet (and NWN blogger in residence) Anna Woodford on her CoMotion project at York University…

When Anna Woodford approached me about the possibility of making a film for one of her poems, ‘What Research Does’, as part of her CoMotion residency at York University, I jumped at the chance. I have an interest in poetry but had never made a poetry film, so I looked forward to the challenge of combining these two art forms.

My job was not to literally illustrate the poem as such (the poem speaks for itself), but to create a visual mood and landscape for it to reside in. Film has its own language, but Anna’s poem sets the rhythm for the film.

I was struck by and particularly wanted to respond to a particular theme – the loneliness felt by some of the people Anna writes about. The poems are inspired by the real-life experiences of older people who Anna interviewed over a six-month period.

there are 96 of you

in this study alone

and the fact that we are all somewhere on the timeline of life and headed in the same direction…

People’s experience of loneliness is, ironically, transformed into something resembling a collective experience when gathered together as part of Anna’s research. My initial idea was to film older people sitting alone in their living rooms, looking out of the window, to create a sense of gazing out onto a separate world.

I finally decided that POV (point of view) shots would work better, encouraging empathy as we looked through another person’s eyes. I also felt this reflected how people are made anonymous through academic reports: the Hex A and Hex B of the poem. So rather than revealing them, it is their experiences that are revealed.

The window motif also gave me the opportunity to visually connect the academic researchers with the older participants. I framed the windows to include some of each room so we are able to visually read a bit into who might live there. I used the line:

opens a window in the stuffiness

of this office and summons you

with your sticks and grief

as the point where the images of the film and the poem are totally in sync, to emphasise the intersection of the academic world and those of the interviewees.

The third dimension a poetry film offers is that of sound. I kept the soundtrack very simple for the film – recording Anna and then adding extra spaces in her reading to allow time for the images to sit on the screen and for the poem to resonate as you hear it.

Finally I added the sound of a ticking clock, ‘counting down’ (as in the poem) – a sound you usually only consciously hear when you are on your own.

Julie Ballands is a filmmaker based in Newcastle and more of her work can be viewed via her YouTube channel and at