Sundance Film Festival

Remembering Derek

A stark black-and-white photograph from 1992 shows a group of young filmmakers and critics (among them Tom Kalin, Isaac Julien, Todd Haynes, Sadie Benning, RubyRich and Derek Jarman) after a panel at the Sundance Film Festival entitled “Barbed Wire Kisses.” The photo marks not just a moment in history, but a moment when a history would begin. Later that year B. Ruby Rich would call this gathering the “New Queer Cinema” in an article for the British film magazine Sight and Sound, a term that would simultaneously serve as nostalgia for an artistic movement that never arrived and a promise of what independent cinema could become.

At Sundance this year many from that year are back. Tom Kalin, who’d originally brought SWOON [www.imdb.com], his luminous black-and-white recreation of the Loeb and Leopold murder case, to Sundance in 1992, is back with another true crime exploration of sex and murder, SAVAGE GRACE [www.sundance.org]. Ruby Rich is back as a critic. And Isaac Julien returns with DEREK [www.derekthemovie.com], a glowing tribute to the artist, filmmaker, and activist Derek Jarman. And even though Jarman died in 1994 from an AIDS-related illness, he has in some ways also returned this year. The Sundance Collection, which is an archival project with UCLA, shows two films each year. This year, the Sundance Collection brings back Gregg Araki’s in-your-face gay romance THE LIVING END [en.wikipedia.org] and Derek Jarman’s EDWARD II [www.allmovie.com], a calculated adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s homoerotic history play.


Tilda Swinton in EDWARD II


Tilda Swinton, who starred in EDWARD II and was in many ways discovered by Jarman, collaborated with Isaac Julien in making DEREK. Both Julien and Swinton felt this was a deeply moving and personal project, one that went beyond simply resurrecting his films for a new generation. For Swinton, it is the man himself she most misses: “Beyond the scope of his various legacies, his films, his writings, his paintings and his garden, his actual self was the magical motor that spun it all into something else.” Her 2002 “Letter to an Angel,” written 8 years after Jarman’s death, becomes the introductory text for DEREK. That same year, producer and writer Colin McCabe brought to Julien a day-long video interview he’d shot with the director. At the time, Julien looked with horror at having to wade through 14 hours of unlogged video. But quickly an idea started to coalesce. As the filmmaking scene in Britain (and elsewhere) grew less and less adventuresome, it seemed important to remember a man who defined art cinema at its best. “He worked outside the industrial model of filmmaking,” explains Julien. “I felt that this was a call to arms to how film culture is being pushed out, how the industry is trying to marginalize art cinema. The current amount of attention and funding is so minute that it is disrespectful to figures like Sally Potter, Terence Davies and especially Derek.” Julien, who in recent years has moved from directing film to producing fine art, remembers how Jarman was always first and foremost an artist. Indeed the film will show as a part of larger exhibition curated by Julien at London’s Serpentine Gallery [www.serpentinegallery.org] from 23 February to 12 April.


Isaac Julien


John Nein who programs two films each festival from the Sundance Collection at UCLA [www.cinema.ucla.edu], took the occasion of DEREK to also curate Derek Jarman. “Each year I look though the films that have been accepted to look for connections,” explains Nein. “In 2004, when we showed [Mario Van Peebles’s bio-pic] BAADASSSSS [www.sonyclassics.com], it seemed obvious to play his father Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG [en.wikipedia.org].” So it seemed obvious to Nein that Sundance should screen Jarman’s 1972 Sundance film EDWARD II – a task that was more easily acknowledged than accomplished. “It was a long process,” remembers Nein, “we had to find out who had the print, then what kind of state it was in, and then we had to strike a new print.” In the end, the hard work was worth it. “I can say anecdotally,” says Nein, “There is a huge admiration for him and his accomplishments – both for what he did for independent film and for the lesbian and gay film.”

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Peter Bowen

Editor, FilmInFocus.com