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Ben Austwick [Film Festival 11.05.10] United Kingdom movie review arthouse

Year: 2010
Directors: Gillian Wearing
Writers: Leo Butler
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 9 out of 10

Gillian Wearing is the latest British contemporary artist to turn to cinema, her low key pieces on identity transferring well to the big screen. So well in fact, she may have found her perfect medium, her formerly impact-based work being given room to deepen and expand, bringing her subjects to the fore.

In an approach in tune with her previous artwork, Wearing sets up a situation, stands back and follows its progress rather than planning the film from beginning to end, placing advertisements asking for potential actors to come forward, filming their training and asking them to construct a story they will star in themselves. Method acting teacher Sam Rumbelow provides the training, taking the amateur actors through various exercises in a drama workshop. These uninhibited, noisy activities bring jokes and laughter, but one strikes deep in a participant's memory and provokes floods of tears, the first hint that the workshop is as much about therapy as acting.

In creating their own plays, the participants are encouraged to explore negative feelings and events in their lives that have upset them. Lian has issues with her absent father which she explores through reenacting a scene from Shakespeare, and Lesley similarly chooses a period setting for her piece, in which she confronts problems with intimacy that have left her isolated and lonely. Both these participants' workshop sessions and frank discussions of their issues are more powerful than the finished plays, which in their use of costumes and old-fashioned dialogue only serve to distance the participants from their feelings; but this is interesting in itself, as the actors retreat from their uncomfortable experiences into the solace of the past. Another director might have guided them into different ways of expressing themselves. Wearing's hands-off approach introduces further layers of meaning.

One of the participants is much harder to read. Dave's theatrical persona, and the revelation that he has set a date in the future to commit suicide, is made no less opaque by his reenactment of the hanging of Mussolini, leaving a lot of questions about a troubled man who shows little to the outside world. A more direct approach comes from two participants confronting their experiences of violence in realistic enactments of fictionalised confrontations. James fantasises about beating up a bully who made his school days a misery, unleashing a spectacular flurry of violence in class and later transferring this to a short film that runs with present day fears of out-of-control youths. Asheq, who approaches the project with an honesty and determination that sees him delve deeper than his fellow participants, looks at the male violence that was a feature of his childhood and makes a complicated translation with himself as both aggressor and victim.

Any criticisms of Self Made are positive ones. It leaves you wanting a lot more, the participants' stories only the beginning of what could be deep journeys into their psyches. Time restraints mean that Sam Rumbelow's fascinating teaching methods are squeezed out of the film, as is the story of one of the participants in the project, who abruptly disappears with no explanation part way through. There's a feeling that Wearing has tried to cram too much in, but on the other hand such a free, uncontrolled approach to film making was always going to be messy.

Self Made's success rests on its subjects, their personalities and the way they explore them, in a film that directorially and artistically tries its utmost to be invisible. It's not an approach you'd expect from a famous visual artist, but Wearing's unwavering focus on her subjects is born of a selfless desire to explore the worlds of others. It's a compassionate approach that in the process reflects on the viewer, with the likelihood that the performances will have resonance with the audience's own experiences. Self Made's direct approach to questions at the heart of our lives makes more traditional filmmaking seem circuitous and cagey in comparison.

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