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Celebrating queer filmmakers: Derek Jarman

During LGBT history month, I want to celebrate one of British cinema’s most enigmatic figures: Derek Jarman. Throughout his illustrious career, Jarman pursued many artistic ventures: he authored autobiographical journals, wrote poems, and painted Renaissance art; but above all he was a filmmaker of enormous talent. His peculiar style of avant-garde cinema maintained its relevance as a result of his eccentric private life and his political activism. He constantly fought for gay rights, despite his personal struggle with HIV AIDS, and should be remembered as one of Britain’s best creators.

Born into a typically middle-class home in Middlesex, his early interest in art brought him to the University of London and the Slade School of Art. After coming out as gay, Jarman increasingly used his early art pieces and film as expressions of his homosexual desires. His first feature film Sebastian (1976) caused a stir in the art cinema world due to its unconcealed portrayal of gay sexual desires. The story about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian was released at a time of great social and political discomfort at the idea of queerness. His early experimental work was shot mostly on a Super-8 camera, an unpopular choice of camera for auteur filmmakers of the time.

Furthermore, the artist was not one to shy away from controversy and with the support of funding from Channel 4, Jarman could continue to produce cutting edge low-budget art cinema. His film Caravaggio (1986), based on the life of Italian painter Michelangelo de Caravaggio excited controversy once again for its overt presentation of homosexuality. In many ways, the visceral reaction to the film turned Caravaggio’s story into something as much about Caravaggio as Jarman himself. Indeed, both artists had been scandalized due to their controversial work and unwillingness to follow the discriminatory attitudes of their time.

By the 1980s, as Jarman had already established himself as a major European auteur, he shifted his focus towards political activism. Amidst his AIDS diagnosis he become an outspoken critic of the anti-gay policies of the Thatcherite government, most notably the Clause 28 legislation which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in education. Along with this his films became overtly political, The Last of England (1987) deliberately named after Madox Brown’s painting of emigrants leaving England to go to the New World, could be interpreted as an attack on the Thatcherite policies of the late 1980s.

As Jarman reached the end of his life he released one of his most timely pieces of work Blue (1993). A much-celebrated piece of contemporary art, it simply presents a blue frame, and a metaphorical reflection of the blindness caused by his AIDS. The blue frame is accompanied by a voice over narration telling the story of the artist’s life along with Simon Fisher Turner’s synthesized music. It has since become an installation at modern art museums across the world and is a sobering reminder of an artist with immense talent and ambition.

During this LGBT history month, let us remember Jarman as someone who was marginalized but also as someone with an enthusiasm and extravagance that made him one of the most significant avant-garde filmmakers of all time.

Image: Gorup de Besanez via Wikimedia Commons