The fine art of film direction

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The Independent Online

There has never been a better time to be an artist film-maker. Galleries, cinemas and festivals are clamouring to show the latest moving pictures from renowned artists such as Steve McQueen, Gillian Wearing and Tacita Dean.

At this year's Venice Film Festival, there is a particularly strong showing of work by artist film-makers from or based in Britain. In addition to McQueen's competition film, Shame, starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender, which screened yesterday and is reviewed opposite, the Orizzonti section which considers new trends in world cinema has new films from Ben Rivers (Two Years At Sea), Andrew Kotting (Louyre – This is Our Still Life) and the Canadian-born, London-based Mark Lewis (Black Mirror at the National Gallery).

Furthermore, galleries are embracing such artists with gusto. Dean, who is best known for her use of 16mm film, will fill the great Turbine Hall at Tate Modern from October. This autumn, the Hayward Gallery will be showing the work of the pioneering Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, known for her single-channel videos, and the ICA will host a retrospective of the American underground director Jack Smith.

Such crossovers have broken down the divide between the gallery and the cinema. Visual artists such as McQueen (Hunger), Sam Taylor Wood (Nowhere Boy) and Clio Barnard (The Arbor) have made films that have been released successfully in cinemas. Now the Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing has joined in with Self Made, her first film made specifically to be shown in cinemas.

Wearing says: "When I used to have conversations with visual artists in the 1990s, people would ask each other, 'Would you make a feature film?' Some people would say, 'I would never make a film,' but I was like, 'I wouldn't mind.'"

The debate has since moved on, with artists realising that some of their work is better suited to the cinema, where there is a stated start time and where spectators are expected to sit through a whole piece of work.

"I think the worlds [cinema and galleries] are still very different, " says Wearing. "You've always had experimental film in the film world and sometimes you see things in a gallery that you think would be better suited for a cinema with a seated environment. "

Last year, Wearing sat on the jury of the Jarman Award. The prize, named after Derek Jarman, the director of Caravaggio, among other films, was set up in 2008, to celebrate "the spirit of imagination and experimentation in the work of UK artist film-makers ". Among the nominees for the £10,000 prize this year are Barnard, Elizabeth Price, Ed Atkins and Hillary Koob-Sassen.

Barnard says that where her film, The Arbor, was being exhibited made a difference to her approach: "Galleries and cinemas provide a completely different context. For example, the sound in a cinema is comparatively really brilliant. It's quite difficult to make sound work in a gallery; you have to think about it very differently. "

What really distinguishes artists from other film-makers, however, is that financiers have to take a bigger leap of faith when working with them. Whereas most directors arrive with a screenplay and describe their story, artists often work from a one-page synopsis, with little or no dialogue written.

Wearing and Barnard started working on feature-film ideas after they were approached to do so by funding bodies, Wearing by the UK Film Council and Barnard by Artangel.

Shezad Dawood is in the process of making a feature film, Piercing Brightness, that will receive its premiere at the Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool. Set in Preston, the film is inspired by the fact that Lancashire has more reported UFO sightings than any other area of England, and by the River Ribble's influence on Mormon history. His approach to the problem of differing audience expectations in the gallery and the cinema was to make two versions of the film.

Ben Rivers' film, Two Years at Sea, featuring a mute protagonist living alone in Scotland, is showing at the Venice Film Festival in an auditorium; at the Toronto Film Festival, his acclaimed four-part film Slow Action, which was made in 2010, will show in a gallery.

"I tend to just make the films without thinking too much about where and how they will show, " he says.

Interest in artist film-makers took off in the 1990s. Film-makers like Wearing and McQueen won the Turner Prize and galleries such as the Lux emerged with the specific aim of assisting artist film-makers.

Gregoir Muir, the executive director of the ICA, who worked at the Lux at that time, says: "It was interesting to hear the terms 'artist film' and 'video art' become more common coinage as the 90s went on. There was a rise in phenomenal artists working in film and that continues to the point now where you have an artist like Jack Smith, who is referred to as the pre-eminent underground film-maker and whose work influences people like Cindy Sherman and Mathew Barney.

In the last few years, galleries have been more willing to show longer-form work with definite start and end times. Technology has played a huge part in this change: it is now far easier for artists to produce work to almost cinema standard on smaller cameras and projection in gallery spaces has become much easier. A reduction in the costs involved has seen an increase in the number of artists using film stock such as 8mm and 16mm.

Cinema exhibitors have not failed to pick up on the rise in the quality of work and the growing popularity of film art. For example, Steve McQueen's Shame will be released in the UK, in January, by Momentum Films. Momentum decided to show Shame in cinemas, says its head of sales, Hamish Moseley, on the strength of Hunger, McQueen's 2008 film about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (also starring Fassbender) which won a Bafta and prizes at Cannes and Sydney film festivals. "You can't ignore his previous career, " says Moseley. "We are trying to attract not just all cinema-goers but all culture lovers. So if his reputation, as a winner of the Turner Prize, can be used to draw people to watch him film, then it should be. It's an asset."

Shame and Two Years at Sea are part of the Venice Film Festival; Self Made is out now; Jack Smith: A Feast for Open Eyes is at the ICA in London to 18 September; Abandon Normal Devices is in Liverpool from 29 September to 2 October