I am moved and fascinated by Stephen Watts’s poetry in ways I find hard to explain and extraordinarily powerful to experience. He is among the most fine and subtle writers I know on the relations of landscape and mind.
Poet, translator and activist Stephen Watts’s book-length prose poem Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds explores landscape, history, memory and the power of words to celebrate and resist.
Filmmaker Huw Wahl has translated Watts’s poem into a luminously beautiful 16mm documentary essay, which accompanies Stephen Watts as he moves from North Uist in Scotland’s Western Isles to London’s Isle of Dogs to the mountains of Northern Italy.
Shot in black and white, using a Bolex ‘wind-up’ camera, and developed by hand in Huw Wahl’s basement, the film has a visceral quality that captures the relationship between language and landscape at the heart of Watts’s work.
Gareth Evans, Moving Image Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, describes The Republics as ‘one of the most impressive artists’ films of recent years, whose own poetry speaks as honestly and eloquently as that of the writer it portrays’. His text about the film is published in full below.
Huw Wahl will visit CAST to talk about The Republics, and about his new film project, Wind, Tide and Oar, on the evening of Thursday 10 June.
‘For four decades, poet, translator and activist Stephen Watts has been the quietly urgent, profoundly committed voice of the marginalised and the overlooked, whether person or place. He understands that the true ethical centre that matters lies at the edge, whether in the pull of outpost islands or the common ground of migrant streets. His tools are perennial witness and precise resistance through poem and prose, anchored in lyric anger for justice and praise song to the loved but fragile things. The language he deploys is one of dark illumination. His is fiercely internationalist writing, a challenge to the abuses of the age that is tense with solidarity, resonance and grace.
‘Now he has found his collaborative equal in the engaged 16mm filmmaker Huw Wahl, who has translated the text of Watt’s book-length prose poem Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds into a luminous feature-length documentary essay of remarkable beauty and spirited attention. The Republics moves from the early 1980s to the present, and from London’s Isle of Dogs and Scotland’s Western Isles – where Watts lived and worked as a shepherd in his youth – to the mountains of Northern Italy: at once a topographic journey and a highly personal meditation on history, memory, identity and belonging.
‘Anchored in Watts’s biography and lines, it nevertheless explores the larger truths of being and the calibrations of response to often hard earned, lived experience. Considering the changing landscapes of settlement in London’s East End and Scottish islands, the destruction of working-class culture and an attendant sense of the collective, the film and its writing are themselves forms of cultural activism: elegy, celebration and a toolkit for ongoing resistance.
‘Never rhetorical, always endowed with a profound empathy and a deep sense of relation – to time, place and human struggle – The Republics is one of the most impressive artists’ films of recent years, whose own poetry speaks as honestly and eloquently as that of the writer it portrays.’
Gareth Evans, Moving Image Curator, Whitechapel Gallery