For love of Derek: Remembering Jarman

Derek Jarman was an inspiration to Tilda Swinton and Isaac Julien. Together they've made a film explaining why. Karen Wright salutes a bittersweet remembrance
Click to follow

Towards the beginning of the late Derek Jarman's film Wittgenstein, the actor playing the Austrian philosopher declares: "If people did not sometimes do stupid things, nothing intelligent would get done." Jarman's career, too, was marked by bold experiment. He moved effortlessly between incarnations – film-maker, artist, writer, political activist and gardener – with a willingness to explore uncharted territory without fear of failure or ridicule. In a world increasingly dominated by the marketplace, it is a rare quality.

Jarman's career is the subject of Derek, a new documentary by the artist Isaac Julien, which centres around an interview with the film-maker, interspersed with clips of his films and a narration by his muse, Tilda Swinton (she appeared in seven of his movies). The movie will form the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, which has been curated by Julien. A homage to Jarman, the show will include rarely seen Super-8 films, paintings and Jarman's 1993 film Blue. It is a brave attempt both to highlight the career of an artist who has largely been forgotten, and also to recall a period rich in artistic experimentation.

Jarman died in 1994 of complications from Aids; in 2002, Swinton delivered a speech to the Edinburgh Film Festival in the form of a posthumous letter to the film-maker. The speech was both a homage to Jarman and an attack on the lack of courage in funding experimental film-makers. It begins: "Dear Derek, Jubilee is out on DVD. It's as cheeky a bit of inspired old ham punk spunk nonsense as ever grew out of your brain, and that's saying something: what a buzz it gives me to look at it now. And what a joke: there's nothing an eighth as mad, bad and downright spiritualised being made down here these days this side of Beat Takeshi [Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano, Japan's own edgy Renaissance man, a prolific actor and director]."

Swinton's sentiments inspired Julien to commemorate the film-maker, who was also a hero of his. "Jarman was an inspiration," he says. "He was using Super-8, a small hand-held camera, and he opened the way to experimentation. Jarman epitomised the new Romantics and reflected the growth in club culture."

Julien is talking at his studio in King's Cross, London – a serious space more like an upmarket doctor's consulting room than an archetypal grubby garret. Jarman's paintings are propped along the wall, memento mori of times past. Julien himself is dressed in a stylish dark outfit, well in keeping with his surroundings. He is small in stature, softly spoken and utterly charming.

Julien was born in 1960 in Bow, London, his parents having emigrated from St Lucia. "They were modest people," Julien says. "My father was a hospital porter, my mother was a nurse, and I was the eldest of five children." He is at pains to stress the differences in background between himself and Jarman: "We were fundamentally so different. He came from an upper-class family with a patrician background. I came from a modest one. His life was a party."

None the less, in some ways Julien's career has mirrored Jarman's. Like the latter, Julien met with early success, with his drama-documentary Looking for Langston receiving the award for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989; in 1991, Julien's Young Soul Rebels won the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques prize for best feature at the Cannes Film Festival. As with Jarman's work, Julien's films are often explorations of his sexuality, mixing documentary with more artful techniques.

Julien hopes that the exhibition at the Serpentine may signal a return of interest in a period of art that was eclipsed by the emergence of the Young British Artists in the 1990s. He says: "It would be good to scratch beneath Damien Hirst to see an art scene that has not been properly recognised. Jarman was the tip of the iceberg. It was a period of the hand-made, the punk movement, and people like The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys were involved in not just music but appearing in Jarman's films."

Of Blue, Jarman's last film, which was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1993, Julien says: "How great to show a film at the Venice Biennale... that is basically a painting [the film consists of a single colour projected onto a screen and overlaid with an intricate soundscape]. Jarman was registered as blind, Blue is a conceptual response to his blindness." Julien continues: "There were loads of books on colour theory in Dungeness, Jarman's cottage by the sea, but it was a Warholian gesture as well." Of course, Julien is right: Warhol's film Empire, a single continuous shot of the Empire State Building, and Blue have much in common.

Colour is an important theme in Jarman's films, something that comes across from the clips chosen for Derek. Jarman discusses the groundbreaking sex scene in Sebastiane: how his actors chose to be filmed while sexually excited, and how the painting of the genitals golden overlays the paradoxically innocent-looking, colour-soaked scene.

Swinton's narration of Derek knits together the almost disorientating abundance of film clips, interviews and stills. She remembers first encountering Jarman in the mid-1980s. "I had run away to join a different circus myself – Planet Jarmania. He was the first person I met who could gossip about St Thomas Aquinas and hold a steady camera at the same time, as he did at our first meeting. Derek was, for us young ones just moved to London from university or homes in the provinces, the greatest fun grown-up you can imagine being around. He wore his renegade identity like a buccaneer's cape: lightly and with gleeful pride – in fact, a proper swagger – and he made it his business to be inclusive. He spun a party out of every production meeting, every shoot day, every elevenses.

"But what I remember most vividly about living alongside him for nine years, after all the paper parades and balloons on sticks, was the peaceableness of our pootling about in silence at Dungeness in the garden, on the beach, in his studio, for hours at a time. He was above all a fine – quiet – companion. I miss him very much more for this reason than any other."

Yet the paintings in the exhibition are almost unbearably sad. There is a broken quality about them; nothing is whole. Julien admits: "There is an ambivalence about his paintings. They are quite difficult." Again, Derek comes to the rescue with an explanation: Jarman was finding it increasingly difficult to find funding for films, and turned instead to painting. In the film, he says firmly that this is not a problem for him as painting is a primary interest, but, somehow, watching him wielding his hammer smashing panes of glass, he looks achingly fragile.

In one of the first scenes of Derek, Swinton reflects on how it was Jarman's wish at one point to evaporate from view and take his work with him – and how close to the truth this has become. "There is a whole generation of people who will never have heard of Derek Jarman and are just the kind of people who would love his films. And where are they? They have only recently started to be talked about being released on DVD... [They're rarely seen] on video and seldom in cinemas. You know, where are independent distributors? How is it going to be possible for independent distributors to feel powerful enough to distribute this kind of work in the future and to educate the film audience?"

'Derek' will be screened tonight on More 4 at 10pm; Derek Jarman Curated by Isaac Julien will appear at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075) from 23 February to 13 April