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Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman


Isaac Julien brings the queer auteur's life and work back to the big screen with his documentary Derek, which will premiere at Sundance.

Isaac Julien is a filmmaker unafraid to blaze trails. His early films, like Looking for Langston, were at the forefront of black gay cinema, and he's a noted multimedia artist to boot. So it's fitting that his latest project is a documentary about another groundbreaking director, Derek Jarman. Jarman's films -- which include Sebastiane, The Tempest, and Edward II -- were unconventional both in form and content, and his unabashed portrayals of gay sexuality were shocking at the time. For fans who are seeking a deeper glimpse into Jarman's life and work, Julien's documentary, titled simply Derek, will premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Isaac, congratulations on getting Derek accepted to Sundance. Tell me a bit about your history with the festival. I've been several times to Sundance. The last time I went was in 2006, to share art pieces and single-screen works in a different section of the festival. That initiated a new strand at Sundance where they're showing different works made by artists and having a conversation with the art world in that context. It was quite new and novel for the festival.

And, of course, your early attendance at Sundance coincided with the birth of New Queer Cinema. Yes. I made a film called Young Soul Rebels in 1992, and it was that [Sundance] panel about queer cinema hosted by B. Ruby Rich, where Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes, myself, and several other filmmakers participated in a discussion that heralded this new cinematic moment in gay cinema.

Let's talk about the documentary. Obviously Derek Jarman has been a profound influence on you -- both personally and cinematically -- but I was curious if you remember the first time you saw a film of his. I think I saw my first Jarman film probably when I started to attend my first art courses in 1980. I was really aware of his work -- especially Sebastiane, which may have been the first one that I saw. That film was all in Latin, and I'd just studied Latin.

What kind of impact did he make on you? Basically, Derek was this sort of iconic figure and had been basically at the forefront of making great films at that time. It was called the New Romantics movement -- people like Leigh Bowery and John Maybury who were making films which were quite iconoclastic and had this sort of luxuriousness imagery against the kind of puritanism that I think obstructs filmmaking. It was quite an experimental art film scene, and that was my first encounter to Jarman's work.

Can you make a lot of connections between contemporary filmmakers and Derek Jarman? He influenced a whole generation of filmmakers from the '80s into the early '90s. I think any filmmaker who is gay or uses gay themes, they'll probably have seen a Jarman film because he's such an iconoclastic figure. I can think of Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin -- they have very distinct styles -- but I think there's a number of filmmakers who have adopted that sort of punk, do-it-yourself attitude Derek had in terms of his own filmmaking.

I know your documentary uses a lot of found footage -- most specifically an extensive 1990 interview with Jarman. The daylong interview was conducted by Colin MacCabe -- the film was actually MacCabe's idea, because he initiated the whole project by approaching me to direct a film that might include this footage. For television, it was far too long [laughs]. Basically, in the interview he really talks about growing up in the '50s -- he comes from a sort of military brat background -- and the English public school system. He talks about growing up in the '60s art scene with David Hockney and Ken Russell, and gay London in the '60s. In a way you could say that Jarman is a bit like a Warholian figure.

How so? There's a place like the Factory where people used to meet and show Jarman's films -- a whole subculture that's really fascinating, and all of this has been documented because he made films himself. It's these films which were, in a way, the most amazingly interesting films because they'd never been seen before -- at least since the '70s. It's quite a tapestry, to see him into the '90s with Queer Nation and this sort of ACT UP aesthetic and the politics that sprung up around his work. It feeds back into his movies, and it really does document these times well because he's very Warholian in character. Like when punk rock began, Derek was there.

Jarman died in 1994. What makes this the right time for a documentary about him? Part of me making this film is that I think he's now someone who could be seen as the past rather than the present. I think it's really important to see him again and revisit him -- it's really quite amazing to make a film like this in terms of responses I've received from friends and fellow filmmakers. The tapestry of filmed footage that exists of him is really quite amazing. I'm very, very excited about this film, and I think it may prove to be quite amazing when people see it.

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