(Gillian Wearing, 2011)
Her first foray into cinematic filmmaking, a step up from short films like Sixty Minute Silence and the Oberhausen International Short Film award winning 2 into 1, an award shared with fellow artist cum filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing’s Self Made is effectively an art installation relocated and given the big screen treatment. Though far from resembling anything with a sizeable budget, the film is an experiment that sets out to achieve the aim of exhilaratingly studying the human psyche, getting to grips with the inner workings of seven discerning subjects.
Answering a casting call that simply read, “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian”, each guinea pig has their own story to tell and pain to address, and it is the way in which Wearing teases out these inner truths, through the intensive expertise of method acting coach Sam Rumbelow, that her investigation stops being a visual piece of art and becomes something else entirely; a searing character study.
Though not the first of its kind in the way it splices together documentary realism with conscious fictional scenarios, something of a norm for modern approaches to the genre (Wearing herself brands it a hybrid), Self Made adopts a similar route most of the ‘reality’ shows currently plumbing the depths of entertainment-hungry television utilize: the wish fulfillment assurances of The X Factor and the obtrusive, soul bearing scrutiny of Big Brother, though it rarely promises the same outcomes. It is, instead, as close to any film has come to in experimenting with the group therapy style of self-contemplation, collecting together seven externally different individuals sat on deeply personal conflicts that belie their experiences of the everyday. Wearing gets her subjects to create idealistic scenarios – or “end scenes” – for themselves to express feelings of reflection and fact-facing; short dramatic bursts that range from Asheq Akhtar’s brutally disturbing dispensation of anger to Lian Stewart’s stage-worthy rendition of King Lear’s emotionally resistant Helen, by way of James Baron’s painfully familiar confrontation. Yet as diverse as they are verbose, helped along by a noticeable animalistic soundtrack (itself the results of a particularly obtrusive, bellowing task Rumbelow has them undertake), these Leo Butler-scripted sequences appear slightly episodic in conjunction with the overall film, building each character-attributed category to an increasingly predictable, jovial conclusion where lessons are learnt and pains have been confronted.
They are, however, lusciously staged and powerfully acted, giving the ‘actors’ diverse and deftly handled room to breath and express their naked studies of identification, additionally giving the piece a willfully disjointed ambience paralleled by the individualities of each of the five participants given the cinematic spotlight. Though hard and perhaps uninvited to identify with a protagonist in Wearing’s apparently motiveless study, it is Lesley Robinson’s arc as a sunny though secretly lonely fourtysomething, who begins with the inability to merely smash a porcelain plate (“What has it ever done to you?”) to eventually divulging a desperation for partnership and motherhood, that injects the, at first, cold film with a heart and soul, meshing with Dave Austen’s desire for a partner to fully communicate with. Robinson’s wispy black and white World War 2 departure is in turns melancholic and charming, offering respite from her solitary heartache and serving as one of the films most standout sequences.
With such stark images; others include a Mussolini-spouting Austen and Stewart’s dinner table patriarchal conflict, Wearing reiterates the fact that she is, born and bred, an artist now flirting with filmmaking aesthetics, no different to the successful career transitions of Taylor-Wood and Steve McQueen. Yet it is hard to tell whether Self Made will receive the same levels of critical success that befell Nowhere Boy and Hunger respectively, as, to some extent, it rejects the straightforward conversion of fiction (or non-fiction) modes of storytelling, teetering on what could be labeled as ‘reality cinema’. One message that reads loud and clear, however, is Wearing’s transgressive attitude toward the relationship between reality and fiction, and that film, as a form of catharsis, offers both the opportunity for escape and personal rediscovery.