Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Words Aloud: The Movie

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Words Aloud: The Movie

Living in Toronto, it’s easy to believe that little happens outside the literary capital of Canada, with its International Authors Festival, multiple reading venues, small press book fairs, and all the other word-based activity. However, there are many writers and events in smaller centres. One is the Words Aloud spoken word festival in Durham, Ontario (a Grey County town of 2500, about two hours drive northwest of Toronto). This November festival, whose website is at, has run for the last six years, featuring writers and performers who cover the gamut from traditional for-the-page poetry through hybrid performers like singer/songwriter/writer Robert Priest, Louise Halfe (Skydancer), Lorna Crozier and dub poet Clifton Joseph, the Toronto Slam Team. storyteller Ivan Coyote and slam performer Shane Koyczan.
Liz Zetlin, former Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, recently produced and directed Words Aloud, a 53-minute video documentary of the 2007 Festival. This was launched at the 2010 Words Aloud festival, and is now being considered for various documentary festivals. Poet/songwriter Ian Ferrier provides the voice-over and some on-camera interviewing. To learn more, I interviewed Liz over the phone.
JO: I was struck by the way your documentary portrays not only the performers, but also the community that attends and participates in the readings and workshops.
LZ: That’s what we were trying to show. Our tag-line for the video is “The spoken word festival that moves a small town to its feet.” It creates community through a shared experience.
JO: At the beginning of the video there’s that great scene with Clifton Joseph talking into the camera [Clifton (laughing): So, someone said “Speak softly and carry a big stick. Most poets don’t have big sticks – actually a few do – so words got be loud. Words got to be loud, aloud, so they can clearly hear us upset the applecart. Let’s go!"] How did you get that moment?
LZ: We didn’t know when he was coming, until we got a phone call from Tim Horton’s in Durham. It was Clifton saying “I’m here; is someone coming to get me?" We were talking in my car, and I picked up my little still camera. He asked if I was taking a picture, and I said “No, this is on video. Keep talking!” I think that was the most amazing part of the video, and I had to fight with the editor to get that in.
JO: You’ve previously done some short poetry videos. How much of a learning curve was this longer production?
LZ: it was quite huge. The longest video I’d done before was seven minutes. It had some landscape shots, guitar, a cappella singing, plus a voice-over and sound effects. I learned a bit, because basically I did everything. I was the camera person, sound recordist, editor. For the documentary it was more a question of managing the whole production and trying to think what the story might be. it was a lot of logistics because we had 20 or so performers visiting the festival at different times over three days and 50-60 hours of shooting that we had to cut down to less than an hour. Part of the funding was from the Canada Council, who said “You can’t just shoot the festival,” so we needed a story line. We got the red-haired guy, Adam [an 18-year-old from a nearby village] to visit the Festival and we interviewed him. We ended up having to show Adam’s trajectory or journey without a lot of footage of him. And that’s where Ian came in with the voice-over. I hired a professional editor in Toronto who’s done a lot of art videos… and we showed him all the footage. He said “There is a documentary in there, but maybe not the one you wanted!” Overall, the video took three years of work and funding applications; that was the easy part. The hard part is getting it out there.
JO: How are you marketing the video?
LZ: There‘s a whole new model of film distribution called hybrid marketing. I took a workshop from Peter Broderick, a big guru in the film distribution community. He came up with the hybrid distribution model to distribute films via social networking. You can even use the model to fundraise. The idea is to build a community around the documentary, and create a buzz about it… you can have house parties, screenings in different towns. The premiere was at Words Aloud festival last year, and a lot of the audience was in the film. Peter saw the trailer and the study guide [created for high school use], and said “You’ve got a lot of added value here”’. I think it has a really wide appeal to general audiences, the average person and this little documentary will have a long life, because of the quality of its performances. I’ve given myself this year to promote it, hoping that I’ll have developed some networks and communities around it. The other thing I do want people to know is that all the proceeds are going to the South Grey-Bruce literacy council for youth literacy. There is a lot of need for tutoring in numeracy and literacy, and they do a great job.
JO: What did you have to learn besides the marketing angle?
LZ: I had to learn how to write a documentary script… I even hired a script doctor to help me with this.
JO: Tell me about the study guide, “Exploring Contemporary Canadian Voices - the spoken word."
LZ: The study guide is totally free – I worked with a local high school teacher and a student in his English class. The student had to help develop the before-and-after questions based on multiple intelligences. She learned a lot because she was really shy at first, and she had to present this publicly. She’s now at [the University of] Guelph studying writing, which is what she wanted to do. For me that’s part of the whole community thing, to get it to the teachers and school boards in the area.
JO: How can people buy the DVD?
LZ: Right now, to purchase the documentary for home use, email me at It’s $14.95. I’m working on the pricing for educational use.

The study guide is available here: “Exploring Contemporary Canadian Voices - the spoken word" .

Below is the trailer for the documentary.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page