Self Made is Turner prize winning artist Gillian Wearing’s feature film debut. The artwork I knew her for, prior to seeing the film, was the series of photographs entitled Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say; an image of a middle aged man in a suit holding up a sign saying ‘I’m Desperate’ the most clear in my memory. This theme of innermost personal truth is the very essence of Self Made.
Though it sounds like a contradiction, the film is a documentary that blends fact and fiction: The main characters are seven respondents to an ad placed in a Newcastle and London newspaper saying “Would you like to be in a film, You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian…” The selected are put though rigorous workshops by Method acting tutor Sam Rumbelow, which culminate in five short films where, as promised, they play themselves or someone else. Scripted by Gillian Wearing and playwright Leo Butler the shorts themselves are the point at which the exercises and improvisations that make up the workshops become pre determined fiction and this moment is, for me, the most captivating.
Typical long form documentary style (which would have probably shown the ad being placed, the responses being sorted, the auditions being held, etc) is mercifully avoided and the audience are dropped straight into a scene from one of the shorts followed by the first workshop - starkly shot in a warehouse space. At first it’s funny; ‘normal’ looking members of the public making intense groaning noises and rolling their heads whilst being instructed by ‘the expert,’ but as what is happening becomes increasingly more intense and emotional, prolonged close ups mean it’s impossible not to empathise with these people. At one point, during an exercise based around the experience of taking a bath, 30 something Asheq begins to weep uncontrollably. Personally at this, and other points, I found myself having a weep too.
What is powerful is that the pivotal experiences of the characters in their everyday lives, often tragic or painful, are only referenced when relevant and not sensationalised. As a result of this, the film becomes less about specific ‘issues’ themselves (i.e. bullying and violence) and more about the process of tapping into these experiences and creatively channelling them in a way that might offer the potential of catharsis.
The group play out and re play ‘scenes’ from each other’s lives that have deeply affected them. It is intriguing is how the smallest gesture within a role-play can have such a telling and profound effect. An example of this is when Lesley, a woman who has difficulty accepting love, downright cannot accept a present from the man playing her courtier. Breaking out of character she says to Sam almost angrily “You know I hate being given things.”
The five short films that are the result of the experiment are varied in theme and nature: From an understated war-time romance to a man convinced he’s Mussolini and Asheq, as himself, facing his darkest fears. The one thing they all have in common is that they are beautifully shot and open-ended. I was so relieved that there wasn’t a “so and so has now gone on to…” denouement.
Apparently critically ‘a divider’ I am firmly in the camp that this film is thought provoking, moving and completely worth watching.
You can catch Self Made at the London Film Festival at Vue West End screen 5 on Friday 15th October at 14:45 weekday matinees are only £7. For those who can’t make this off peak time there is also a screening on Thursday at Vue screen 7 18:00, however at the time of writing this looks to be fully booked. Watch out for it on limited release soon.