As Ihle shows in her film, since the unification in 1990 of North and South Yemen, the country has been politically unstable. Poetry fulfills a very important function in the barren rural landscape, where illiteracy reigns and where television and radio (let alone the Internet) have not yet gained (much to any) ground. This is (next to the roughness of the mountains) due to socio-economic circumstances, but most of all due to political and religious conditions. For the rise of mass media has lead to fierce resistance from the side of the Muslim authorities (and amongst others to satellite dishes being shot of roofs as you can read here).
Ihle’s documentary is for a large part based on the book The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen by Flagg Miller, who gives an amazing analysis of the political and moral mediation practices that are at play in contemporary Arab poetry in a glocalized context. The book can almost in its entirety be read online at Google books here.
Ihle’s documentary focuses on the whole production or publishing process of Yemenite poetry, starting with the local context (the drought that plagued the farmers in Yafi’ last summer) and then going on to reflect upon the apprehension of this theme into poems during the gatherings. She then interviews one of the poets, who explains how the process further continues: the poet will write down his poem (often in response to another poet) and fax his poem to the other poet and/or to a singer, who will then send it back recorded on cassette. The cassette is then send to the shopkeeper. The poet does not make any money in this process, as Ihle lets the poet explain; poetry is a hobby, something one does next to their work and family life (the singer will however get paid a little by the poet). The film then shifts to Aden where Ihle goes on to interview an audio cassette shopkeeper, who explains that he holds a large collection of original tapes which are not for sale. He copies them and then sells the copies in his shop, where the customers can also listen to the cassettes. The shopkeeper is thus the first to profit from the poetry in this system. As the shopkeeper states, these cassettes, or better said the content on these cassettes, then spreads rapidly through pirated copies all over the Arab world and even beyond.
Ihle shows in her film how poets and both their recorded and oral poetry play an important role in Yemenite society: a poet reflects the public opinion. Where, as explained in the documentary, in the seventies love poetry was most popular, now poetry about current issues is preferred. Using cassettes offers a political medium to poets to spread their message and their commentary on the situation in Yemen. They are cheap and easy to copy and distribute. In this way cassettes play an important empowering role and function as vehicles for social change, giving poets an arena to reflect their opinions upon in an otherwise closed down public sphere dominated by controlled official media channels. Cassettes are a necessity in an environment where other new media, due to specific local circumstances and characteristics, not yet seem to have fully broken through. The cassette’s salient features thus form a bridge between the local orality and the global conversation. The use and mixing of different media in and for different contexts also becomes clear in Ihle’s documentary where in a few shots you see the poets filming each other with the cameras on their mobile phones during their recitations.
The beauty and power of Men of Words lies in the fact that it not only gives you a short glimpse into the Yemenite society, environment and landscape, it also takes you on a tour into the world of Arabian Poetry, letting the different participants – the poet and the other people involved (the farmer, the poet’s peers, the shopkeeper and the client) – talk for themselves, explaining the process of poetry production and consumption and the strong role the oral tradition still plays in this respect. Ihle captured this process in a clear and coherent story, doing an excellent job on a subject that is difficult to get close to (especially being a foreign woman with a camera in a male-dominated Arab environment).
If you are interested in seeing Johanne’s film online, or want to get more information, you can drop her a line at johanneihle[at]hotmail[dot]com. She has been screening Men of Words in Copenhagen and Berlin and will be showing it in Cambridge this Thursday, December 17th. You can find more information about this screening here.