Saturday, 28 March 2009

Filming Derek Jarman

I first met Derek Jarman at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985. He had just shown his feature Angelic Conversations at the Film Kunst 66 and the audience was ecstatic. In the cinema foyer, Jarman was surrounded by friends and admirers. I was with two fellow film students and we approached Jarman, and asked whether we could see him to talk about filmmaking. He wrote down his telephone number and we headed off into the bitterly cold February night.

In June, we met Jarman at his small flat in Phoenix House, London. The place looked like an Alchemist lair;  crammed with canvases, books and  objects from his films (Jubilee, The Tempest, Shadows of the Sun). There was a reporter interviewing Jarman for a magazine. At the end of the interview Jarman let the reporter take one of his paintings as a gift. The man was very touched by his offer.  We talked a little with Jarman and showed one of our film school projects (an adaptation of The Blind Man by D.H Lawrence).  He was kind with his criticisms of our film and encouraged us to pick up a camera and make personal films, to work with friends rather than professional actors. 

I had a Super 8 camera with me and I asked Jarman if it was ok for us to film him. He brought out a musical saw into the sunniest part of the room and we took turns to film. The saw made an incredible haunting sound that resonated through the flat. We filmed Jarman playing with objects in the sunlight: a skull with a tiara, a large gold leaf book, large dress  scissors and a face caste (it resembled a death mask). Jarman played up to the camera, at times taking on the guise of a serious artist before breaking into manic laughter. 

Jarman decided to go up on the rooftop to get some air.  As he walked up the outside fire escape stairs, he saw a shadow of himself caste against the wall. We encouraged him to play with the shadow and he ran up and down the steps and reached out to the shadow. He became lost in his own world.  On the rooftop he was curious about the Super 8 camera and its macro lens. He held his eye up to the lens as I filmed him fall backwards. I also lay on the roof as he walked over the camera. Jarman was beginning pre-production on his feature Caravaggio and here he was playing around for the camera. It was a day I'll always remember. 

I lost contact with Jarman, though I kept a lookout for his name. In August 1993, I saw an interview with him on the BBC's arts programme, the Late Show. Jarman had Aids and looked very ill. It seemed impossible to me that this man who looked so frail and old, was the same person I'd met eight years before. It was very sad.

In 1994, after Jarman died I looked at the footage we'd filmed on that hot summer day and cut together a short film.  I decided to call the film Small Gestures as Jarman described Angelic Conversations as being "from the cinema of small gestures". The film was premiered at the Kiev Film Festival, received a special jury mention at Berlin and shown around the world at major film festivals. Everyone felt the same sense of loss at the passing of this truly unique man. 


  1. Wow, be great to see that footage sometime Ian. I have a Super 8 projector, if you haven't converted it. We could have a screening. I loved Jarman. There's a story about him meeting his last partner at the Tyneside Cinema, a man who he affectionately called Hinny (Geordie form of the endearment 'honey'). Apparently the director of the cinema at the time warned them each off each other separately. But they got together and Hinny was with him till he died.
    x Carol McG

  2. Hi Carol

    I'll lend the video of film, Small Gestures, to you. I think Jarman mentions his meeting with H at the Tyneside Cinema in his last diary book. I've always thought the Tyneside should put up a small plaque "This is where Derek Jarman fell in love". I didn't know that about the manager, that's very funny.

    Ian x

  3. Oh brilliant! - after I've watched Keel, sorry for delay. Yes, Tyneside plaque would great.