TRUE STORIES: DEREK


More 4 - Tuesday 19th February 2008 - 10.00pm

I feel I have 'known' Derek Jarman for a very long time. His maverick creativity crashed into my life in the early 1980s when I saw a double bill of 'Jubilee' and 'The Tempest'. His iconoclastic work set me off on a path to understand more about this glittering jewel of a man. And so began a deeply felt empathy for him, personally, and his works, taking in his myriad books, films and garden until his untimely death in 1994. He was not only the latest in a long line of British artists and filmmakers who for me are intrinsically British (the twilight of Empire seemed to be written into his DNA) but he was also an artist who deliberately and unapologetically fanned life back into the dying embers of that very elusive concept - 'Englishness'.

For some time now, and like some of his erstwhile British bedfellows (especially Michael Powell and the maker of this documentary Isaac Julien), his pioneering adventures in cinema have faded into the background and no one has emerged to take up this particular stance and to communicate it in such a passionate way. Yes, we still have British directors making so-called British films but I can't get a sense of a director who is also interested in the abstract, visual pleasures of cinema as well as its intellectual and political dimensions. As Tilda Swinton passionately points out in her eulogy during Isaac Julien's vivid documentary portrait, market forces more or less decide what gets made and for whom these days.

I didn't always agree with Derek's politics or indeed some of his artistic decisions but whatever his stance or argument it was his passion most of all that shone through. He describes his early sex-life as 'frozen' until he was 22 as a result of scarring childhood experiences and offers that most of his relationships were platonic rather than rampantly sexual. This gentle man just seems personally at odds with the post 1970s era that he matured in but he would defend anyone's right to have relationships that eclipsed the platonic and were purely physical. He was an inspiration to me as an artist, a filmmaker, a writer, a gardener and an activist. A truly Renaissance man in a time when they were rapidly going out of fashion.

Julien's documentary beautifully fuses together Jarman's home movies (looking very Powell like in their saturated colour and war-time atmosphere), many clips from the vivacious Super 8s (such as 'Bankside'), sequences from TV interviews and his films and weaves into them a one-on-one interview conducted by Colin McCabe in 1990, I believe, as well as tantalising glimpses of Jarman's archive. I could happily spend days leafing through all those huge scrapbooks of his.

I was very emotional after watching this. Though I never met the man (I was only aware of him personally through a mutal friend, Roger Cook) I've always felt he was a kindred spirit as an artist, a writer and certainly in the way that he connected with the gay cultural experience much later in life than his contemporaries which therefore provided him with wisdom that was often direct and uncompromising. Julien captures Jarman in the twilight of his years before the ravages of AIDS took him away from us. Even in the grip of the disease he was ebullient, defiant and so very public at a time when many sufferers would rather die in silence. The films, especially 'Sebastiane', 'Jubilee', 'Caravaggio', 'The Last Of England' (which contains his entire philosophy on the state of England) 'The Garden' and 'Blue'(a stunningly personal AIDS memoir) are the pinnacle of his cinematic legacy but we should not forget his public stance about homosexuality and AIDS in politically repressive times and the sheer delight of that garden in Dungeness. Julien manages to capture it all as part of an alternative history of Britain between the 1960s and the 1990s that is also moving and elegant.

If you don't know about Derek's work then watch the season of films on More 4 ('Blue', 'Sebastiane' and 'Caravaggio') and go and take a look at the retrospective exhibition that accompanies this documentary which is on at the Serpentine from February 23rd 2008, curated by Julien. Crowning this tribute to Derek is the launch of the Film London and More4 Jarman Award, in partnership with the Serpentine Gallery and 3 Minute Wonder. This is to be an annual prize inspired by Jarman. Let's hope that it allows the emergence to take place of those film makers operating at the fringes of visual culture and who have something relevant to say.

Serpentine Gallery - Jarman Retrospective

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