An advert appeared in the newspaper in 2007 which read: “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.” Was it another reality television show? Or a ploy to get free actors involved in a film project? Well, sort of. Except that ‘Gillian’ was actually Gillian Wearing, the 1997 Turner Prize winner and bright light on the ‘90s Young British Artist scene, whose medium to-date has been the thoughts, feelings and interior stories of average people.
The advertisement was for participants in what was to become Self Made, Wearing’s first feature-length film, which makes its debut at Abandon Normal Devices on Monday. The four-year project, which she calls “an epic filmed painting”, saw Wearing sift through hundreds of applicants (X Factor style, but without the public humiliation) and choose a handful of individuals to take part in a method acting workshop to explore their lives in a series of tableaus.
The film project feels like a more sophisticated extension of Wearing’s 1992 photo project Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, for which she stood on a street corner accosted passersby, asking them to spill their souls onto the paper signs she’d brought. “As soon as I did the Signs series, and people who I approached told me extraordinary things, I realised this was a whole area to explore. People aren’t as reserved as you think they are. People just aren’t listened to very often,” Wearing says.
The willingness for normal people to bare their emotional innards on film is something of a phenomena that has built up speed since the onset of Big Brother, Wife Swap, Britain’s Got Talent and other television shows which rely on the word ‘reality’ but present only a semblance of it. So it was inevitable that Wearing’s project would attract interest. What perhaps wasn’t apparent to applicants was that for those involved it wasn’t going to be a quick ticket to fame, but instead a serious, and often difficult, exploration of psychological pain.
Self Made opens with seven individuals sitting on seats making deeply guttural noises. It is their first 'method' class. Sam Rumbelow, who is leading the workshop, tells the class to visualise themselves in the bath; a bathroom of their childhood perhaps, the feel of the cold hard enamel, the steam, the smells. The guttural sounds increase in pitch and the camera hones in on a young man whose face is contorted in grief, tears rolling down his cheek. He’s not the only one crying. As the film continues its trajectory the audience sees more naked emotion than a decade of Big Brother has managed to capture.
We meet Lian, a young woman who has trust issues because she was abandoned by her father. We meet Ash, a kind and unassuming person who wishes to explore his dark side and feelings of violence he’d never act on in normal life. We meet James, a young man who was horribly bullied at school who fantasises about beating up his tormentors. There’s the delightful Lesley, who at 40 is worried about being single and still feeling shy; and Dave, who in the course of filming, reveals he’s cut himself off from his friends and family because he’s planning his own suicide – something which Wearing says shocked them all terribly.
All the characters Wearing has chosen are what she calls “sensitive.” They are receptors. They take direction from Rumbelow incredibly well during just 9 days of workshops. Some of the performances are outstandingly good, especially when you consider that they aren’t actors. Wearing says: “During auditions I didn’t get them to do an improvisation because if you’re a non-actor you can’t really pretend to be one. But it was the sensitivity in all of them that I was interested in. They brought their souls with them. If you can bring your soul then the truth in that will come across.”
In contrast to sensationalist television documentaries which cause chaos in peoples’ lives and then leave them to fall apart once the cameras stop rolling, Wearing is very aware of the responsibility she holds to each character taking part. “I had to entrust a lot of responsibility to Sam Rumbelow because he was working directly with the participants. I was behind-the-scenes documenting certain moments and would never interfere. But I completely trusted him and having spoken to the participants, feel that they got a great deal out of it.”
It’s true that at times Self Made feels a bit like group therapy, what with the characters breaking down and talking about their troubles. But this is done in such a creative and thought provoking way, that on top of being a totally frank and honest look at their lives, it becomes at once constructive and compelling to watch. Lian, for instance, sets up her “end scene” as Act 1 from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Her performance as Cordelia, who will not pander to an attention-seeking father but remains honest and true, is worthy of a top-notch theatre.
In turn, Dave’s "end scene" invocation of Mussolini is thrilling to watch. When James attacks a bully on a tube train you’re right there with him, cheering every punch. It is the transformation in all of the characters which keeps the audience’s interest. Lesley, who is so open and honest about all the things most of us try to keep hidden-loneliness, insecurity, sense of time going by unbidden-, seems to make the biggest transition. She goes from being shocked at being allowed to break china to reciting poetry beautifully, so involved in the words that she sobs. “You really feel Lesley start to open up in a wider sense. There was always an openness but it just goes off the stratosphere. You feel so warm towards her because she wears her heart on her sleeve.”
Wearing is in discussion with distributors about releasing the film in cinemas. It would be quite a move for a genre which has its comfort zone so firmly rooted in television. Michael Moore and a few others have made the leap into ‘reality cinema’ but nobody has taken it as far as Wearing has. And while plenty of artists have tried feature filmmaking – Steve McQueen, Andy Warhol, Sam Taylor-Wood-, it is a difficult nut to crack commercially. “Whether to screen it in galleries or cinema? That question is only just beginning to be answered. I need to work out the best route for the film, so this is new territory for me.”
'Self Made' has its UK premiere 2 October at the Abandon Normal Devices Festival andfestival.org.uk and will be screened 14 & 15 October at The London Film Festival. Wearing is on the jury of the Film London Jarman Award, winner announced 5 October.