Originally published on March 13, 2017
The 35th CAAMFest is currently happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, and this past weekend, I got to watch two of the many extraordinary films as part of this year’s program; POI E: THE STORY OF OUR SONG and WINDOW HORSES: THE POETIC PERSIAN EPIPHANY OF ROSIE MING. While I have had the privilege of seeing both these films months in advance as a member of the CAAMFest screening committee, as any film festival buff would imagine, it makes such a difference when seeing it on the big screen.
These two films couldn’t be more different. POI E is a documentary about the making and significance behind New Zealand’s 1984 hit song, whereas WINDOW HORSES is an animated feature film about a young woman who attends a poetry festival in Iran and embarks on a journey of self discovery through some of the greatest poets who’ve ever lived. However, after watching them both again this past Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse, I’ve come to realize that there is a commonality they share: Both films explore the concept of re-connecting with your roots through the arts.
POI E, directed by Tearepa Kahi, goes in depth on how New Zealand hit-maker, Dalvanius Prime, created the song and how it became as culturally significant as it is in today’s time. The creation of the song came about as a way to show Maori youth at the time to be proud of their culture; a message that, I can only imagine, being especially meaningful to Prime after losing his mother, whose last words to him were in Maori… and he was unable to understand what she said. Record labels initially thought otherwise of the song; one of which had even told Prime that they would not accept it unless it had “Pakeha lyrics.” So under his own label, Prime produced the song and the album, and as luck would have it, it eventually wound up as #1 on New Zealand music charts for four weeks; even beating out other artists of the time such as Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper.
There hasn’t been such a song like that since then. While the world knows New Zealand music a little better nowadays through the likes of Lorde and Broods, they’re not exactly known for penning songs entirely in Maori and inspiring young people to embrace their culture. POI E did that, and the documentary really got down to the essence of just how. In fact, Taika Waititi, the directing extraordinaire behind the next THOR film, makes a few appearances in the documentary, as he goes on about the song’s significance through his perspective (although if you’ve seen his 2010 film BOY, you already knew that):
WINDOW HORSES is a beautiful work from Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming. Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is a 20-something, mixed race poet who gets invited out to an international poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. What she doesn’t expect while there is having poetry teach her not only about the host country’s history of poets such as Rumi and Hafez, but also about herself. Rosie is Persian through her estranged father’s side, and together with poetry and connecting with friends of his, she comes to realize that what she was led to believe about him may not be entirely true. Rosie is Chinese through her mother’s side, and while she is unable to speak the language, she finds herself learning more about that side of herself as well, when faced with the challenge of translating a poem by an exiled poet from China.
This was an extraordinary film. While it’s quick to tell that the unique styles of animation used throughout it are a main reason, it’s also just as obvious from the beginning that the different components and perspectives presented throughout the film are another; in particular, in how Rosie explores her roots through the art of poetry. As a 20-something, mixed race writer myself, I find that so very fascinating indeed; one that can amount to the same level of significance that the song POI E has for the Maori community of New Zealand.
POI E and WINDOW HORSES are very different works that are connected by the shared experience of re-connecting with one’s roots through the arts; whether that be through music like in the former or poetry with the latter. It’s for this reason, along with all that make these two films the individual works they are, that I will be recommending them both to anyone and everyone whenever I can.