Concerning Self Made, a film by Gillian Wearing OBE.
Self Made was shown at Manchester Cornerhouse on Saturday September 3rd 2011 (and simultaneously in other cities across Britain.) Visual artist, Gillian Wearing, and collaborator, Sam Rumbelow, were at Manchester Cornerhouse for a Question and Answer Session after the showing.
Self Made Trailer 2011
Self Made is a film made from ‘selves'; not the artist’s self but the selves of others. But whereas Gillian’s past work has presented intriguing glimpses of other individuals’ lives, her debut feature film over-exposes five of her subjects to such a degree that it is difficult not to regard them as being exploited. In this respect, her approach doesn’t ‘scale up’ very successfully to the demands of a feature film.
Gillian’s work usually relies for its effect upon a charmingly simple device which reveals unexpected and compelling insights into the lives of others; most famously, in ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say’, the device was a sign:
In Self Made, Gillian’s ‘device’ is Sam Rumbelow, a method acting coach. Sam’s presence among her subjects is the device through which Gillian exposes insights into her subjects, which she then records and calls ‘art’.
This approach creates problems within the film which are never resolved; Sam is Gillian’s device but he is also a human being who appears on-screen throughout her film… but she doesn’t treat him as such. He is never shown being questioned or challenged and he never appears vulnerable, so he doesn’t come across as particularly ‘human’ – he is entirely defined by his function within the film’s structure. He is credited, not as a ‘participant’, but as ‘crew’, even thought he is, in effect, the film’s leading actor.
Sam – svengali, self-appointed therapist and wearer of owlish glasses – is supported on-screen by a cast of hopefuls, who were chosen from hundreds through a process of emails and auditions; the same general template as X Factor, or Britain’s Got Talent, in fact. Apparently, the ads read:
Would you like to be in a film?
You can play yourself or a fictional character.
The film opens with a method-acting workshop containing 5 men and 2 women, led by Sam, who tells the seven that his method technique will be valuable to them as individuals, regardless of their future plans.
I felt uneasy about the uneven gender mix. In particular, I thought Lian Stewart, the younger of the two women, was put in an uncomfortable situation; she was the obvious focus of the hetero-sexual men’s attention, which she must have been aware of.
Sam puts the onus on her to be less self-aware and guarded, suggesting that she has ‘trust’ issues which she needs to overcome; she accepts Sam’s ‘version of reality’. I found this uncomfortable to watch – it was like observing someone being groomed to join a cult.
From that moment on I was waiting for someone to challenge Sam… but (suspiciously) nobody did.. atleast not on-screen.
As a result, Gillian allows Sam’s ‘version of reality’ to become the film’s ‘normality'; she accepts it, runs with it and doesn’t
question it… very surprising, I thought, for an artist of her reputation.
Gillian also allows Sam’s influence to take the film into disconcertingly theatrical territory. I’m referring to Lian’s Shakespeare scene which appears from nowhere without explanation, Lesley’s sonnet, and the fact that the five end-scenes ‘suit’ each individual’s outward appearance rather too well, as though they were being coached to audition for conventional roles in film or theatre.
In particular, I thought Dave Austin was steered towards his Mussolini role on account of his physical appearance, and his outward personality traits… not because of anything he discovered about himself through the workshops.
Sam tells his workshop participants that he wants each of them to discover ‘their (emotional) truth’ through adopting his method, but in fact, Sam’s workshops seem to steer each individual towards identifying with tired dramatic stereotypes.
The five ‘selves’ which are revealed through the five ‘end-scenes’ are stereotypical in the extreme: three men pre-occupied with violence and death, and two women defined by their troubled or failed relationships with men.
Ash Akhtar tried hard to create an entirely new piece of drama from his imagination rather than from his direct experience, but unfortunately he came up with one of the weaker pieces. There was nothing sinister about his attacking a dead pig, although the scene was symbolically loaded, given that he is asian. When he kicked the pregnant woman in his ‘end-scene’ the sound-effect used was so ludicrous that the effect was Pythonesque.
Lesley Robinson came across as a person of warmth and integrity and her end-scene made me cry. It was moving but it wasn’t the best vehicle for her physically, and didn’t allow her to shine as she deserved to, considering her great contribution to the rest of the film.
James Baron could quite conceivably use Self Made as a launch-pad for a successful acting career. Interestingly, he is so far back in the shots on the official website that you can barely see him – but he is very photogenic, articulate and self-assured… apparently entirely undamaged by his bullying ordeal, which he re-enacts during the film.
I was disappointed not to find out more about Jerome Prince (who had the best clothes) and Simon Manley, the plate-smasher, who displayed an intelligent, subversive sense of humour and promised to be entertaining.
In the Q&A session, Gillian explained that Jerome and Simon’s end-scenes were dropped from the film because they didn’t have a ‘story arc’. I was bemused by this … I thought she was an artist, not a conventional film maker.
In my opinion, Gillian Wearing’s collaboration with Sam Rumbelow completely undermines Gillian’s ability to challenge cultural stereo-types through Self Made as she has done in her previous work. Instead, paradoxically, Self Made re-enforces the cultural stereotypes which Gillian has built her reputation upon challenging.
In the end, the project seems to have descended into a bizarre game of one-upmanship:
First there was a pot of money made available, by the Arts Council and related agencies, for a visual artist to make a ‘long’ film. Gillian submitted her film proposal (along with about 20 others) and won. She then relied too heavily upon Sam Rumbelow who steered the project into his comfort zone. Participant James Baron used the project to showcase his acting (and directing) talents, but was practically left out of the official advertising for the film.
It would be wonderful if one of the seven ‘participants’ could use Self Made as a stepping stone towards a career, because at least then the money used to fund this project will have achieved something positive for somebody.
(Many thanks to my friend Lorraine for taking me to see the film!)
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In an excerpt from the website http://selfmade.org.uk/gillian/, Gillian Wearing says this about her film Self Made:
The Method workshops were designed to aid the participants, as they become the characters they have chosen. Desire to become a character and the actualization are not always in harmony, the space in between these two states is rich and interesting.
The participants found revelations in different ways during these exercises; which were not rehearsed. Sam Rumbelow kept them living in the moment, reacting as each new obstacle arose. He encouraged the cast to lay down their boundaries and not to fear. If resistance occurred, Sam helped each participant face their limitations.
The film moves a step further when the characters explore their fictional selves, sometimes resolving real life issues, other times using the space as a release. Both participant and audience experience documentary revelations, fictional constructs, and the artifice that goes in to making a movie.
I want the film to show that who the participants chose as characters is a projection of themselves, however far fetched or heinous that persona is, and that catharsis can occur through creative and playful experimentation. What does that tell us about the characters, and about society? Are these people typical of us; are we all playing a role, consciously or unconsciously?
Give me strength.