A “Bertsolari” is a poet on the edge of abyss. To be sure, every poet deals with the edge of nothingness, of silence, of the blankness of the page or the emptiness of a screen.
For the bertsolari however, the abyss is different. She faces an audience that can reach up to 14,000 people. He faces fellow bertsolari waiting in the wings. She faces a master that, a few seconds before the performance, shall tell her what his poem should be about and even which persona she is to assume. He can be told, for example, to compose a bertso from the point of the view of a journalist writing about death. She can be instructed to compose a bertso about a bertsolari taking part in a documentary about bertsolari.
And this is how the movie begins. With a beautiful young poet waiting in the wings, thinking to herself to keep her eyes and ears-her very self-open. When she finally gets on stage, she is told to compose a bertso about the last topic mentioned above. And the bertso should have nine verses. And these nine lines should rhyme, with the last line a repetition of the previous line.
She bows for a few seconds to compose not only her poem but also herself. And when she opens her mouth, it is to sing a work of art that only begins to exist at that moment. The melody she creates is in a minor key, sonorous, charged with plangency. One can imagine how many things she is juggling inside her head-the meditation on her assigned topic, the succession of words to rhyme, the matching of sentence to song and the melody she sings a capella.
“Bertsolari,” the 2011 film by Asier Altuna, is a compelling adventure into an art form that has gripped the people of the Basque region. Yet, as the film itself makes clear, it belongs to a wider tradition that includes our own balagtasan where Tagalog poets conduct an improvised debate in meter and rhyme, the topic being revealed by a master of ceremonies. But oh what a following it has. Bertsolariza nights fill cantinas and halls, auditoriums and arenas. In this regard, it reminds us of the improvisations that make rap and hip-hop so popular and poetry slams so engrossing.
That’s what the movie is: engrossing, riveting. Woven from interviews of some of the best and most popular bertsolariak performing today, it investigates the whys and hows, the tricks and traps of improvising verse. It tracks the history of what was once a pastoral pastime that found new strength in the political and social setting of Franco’s dictatorship. After all, as one bertsolari wryly points out, the Franco government could not speak Euskara (the language of the Basques). Fired by this new relevance, it now attracts poets and audiences from all generations. Even women, who, in one of the ironies of the history of their sex, used to be banned from performing bertsos in public despite their bertsos being the first their children and family would hear, are now a crucial component of contemporary bertsolaritza.
The director leads the viewer to consider the myriad angles of this vivid literary form. There are MRI animations of the brain at work while a master composes a bertso. Some of the bertsolari actually become actors in some of the movie’s more surreal scenes-swimming in the waters of the Bay of Biscay, singing on the edge of an ancient, ruined courtyard, across a precipitous gorge, on the other side of which are judges seated in a row, partly hidden by mountain mist. The movie carries on a conversation not only with the bertsolari, however. Anthropologists, actors, contemporary musicians and music producers, experts on oral linguistic traditions-all point to the essential human experience of poetry as expression, mnemnonic, transmission and life in a society.
Not least among the characters in this movie is the magical Basque countryside which the director employs as an ever generous source of metaphor, a bubbling spring of imagery—whether to express the submerged loneliness of a poet wrestling with rhyme or to convey the vertigo that accompanies the very performance itself.
“Bertsolari” is not just a documentary about a piece of folk literature. It is hardly a dry and dusty academic study. Instead, it is a compelling love story of artists for their craft, of an audience for their artists, of a people for its language. And so, at the climax of the movie, the annual competition crowns the champion of the bertisolaritza, we find ourselves transported across the abyss into the arms of a people’s love affair with poetry.
“Bertsolari” will be shown in Película on Oct. 14, 9:30 p.m.
Ramón C Sunico is a poet in both English and Filipino. He also writes stories for children.