Monday 7 March 2011

Self Made, directed by Gillian Wearing

This new full length film by Turner Prize winning artist Gillian Wearing will be screened on Friday 11th March at the ICA Cinema 1 at 20:45 as part of the Birds Eye View film festival.


Dave, one of the Self Made participants
Revelation or manipulation? Therapy or torture? Self Made is such a chilling film that three days after watching it, I’m still waking up with its scenes in my mind. The set-up is simple. Ordinary people answer an advert inviting them to experience a series of Method acting workshops, culminating in a short film which pulls together the characters and stories they’ve developed from their own experiences.

Those selected to be filmed are vulnerable in some way, seeking closure, catharsis or revenge. The viewer’s dread is increased by footage of the initial warm-ups, voice exercises and small tasks designed to get the group to lose their self-consciousness and connect with their bodies. “Close your eyes,” says the tutor, and they do – but we keep ours open to watch them. We are in the realm of deep psychological excavation, voyeurs in a mental trip that the participants think is just a drama rehearsal. The voice exercises sound like funeral dirges and the sight of the participants, eyes closed, sitting on plastic chairs in a huge warehouse, circling their heads and shoulders, hiccoughing and crying, has a whiff of cultish control. It is these rehearsals which form the main body and interest of Self Made. The finished snippets the participants act in are often the least fascinating element (for us) of the experience.

Gillian Wearing is of course an internationally renowned artist working in photography and film. She gained mainstream fame for her much-imitated series of photographs in which people on the street were invited to write a phrase expressing themselves and hold it up to the camera. The most striking image was the well fed, suited city boy with his office pass around his neck, grinning confidently while his sign said HELP.

In Self Made, Wearing’s power uncovers the base wounds of people’s suffering, the childhood trauma stuff, while the sufferers themselves have no idea just how much they’ve revealed to the world through their speech, interactions and body language.  Well, tough for them, great for us. This is an extremely interesting and totally absorbing film. The viewer is struck but just how deep and eloquent, noble and sometimes sinister ‘ordinary’ people are.

There are some participants who are untrustworthy. There is Dave,* a warehouse worker man in his forties, a cold, frightening, blank individual who admits to bullying colleagues and whose professed vulnerability – revealed in an apparent confession after the acting tutor gently upbraids him for his bravado – does not convince. He introduces himself by saying “I’m reasonably amiable”, which reminds me of the truism that it’s always the ones who feel compelled to tell you “I’m a really honest person” who turn out to be the psychos, pathological liars and manipulators. In an attempt to intimidate and to give an impression of himself as a tough and mysterious guy he says he wants the Method sessions to be like an “exorcism” and describes his inner soul as “a wasp buzzing about inside myself.” He does not participate fully in the exercises, batting off the other participants with glibness, stupid jokes, silence, backchat or laughter. He visibly irritates the usually calm and understanding tutor. He claims that he is vulnerable, having been lonely since he broke up with his girlfriend way back in the mid-90s. But there is something not quite right about this anecdote, this token of “I’m a nice guy” persuasion, and he gives no further details. He does not crack or change during the sessions; his morbidity invites cynicism and mistrust, not sympathy. After the first  exercise he is asked for his reaction and, after hearing everyone else candidly confess to feeling lighter, or sadder, or braver, he shrugs and creepily says, “There’s nothing there. If my death was like that I’d be fine with it.” Later, in a moment of ‘weakness’ which again does not seem authentic he reveals, “I’ve chosen a day that I’ve decided I’m going to die.” But this suicide day, egotistically chosen because it’s a reconfiguration of his birthday, is some [delete: nearly fifteen] years into the future and I do not believe he will go through with it. Predictably, his chosen film snippet is the least interesting, most self-indulgent and sensationalist and most sordid. At the end of Self Made, his eyes glinting with self-satisfaction, he says that the project has not made any difference to him, his feelings, his personality or his plans.

The star of the piece has the quietest story and the quietest demeanour. She is a live-in carer, a woman of only forty whose life is a success in many ways and who gives much to the world, who wants love and a family. When asked whether she was hugged when she was growing up, after a long pause she simply replies, “My father  hugged me, but not in the right way.” She shudders. “I didn’t like him.” She is an intelligent, calm, perceptive and honest woman. She is one of the few participants who has a sense of humour about herself, explaining dryly at the beginning, “I don’t think the camera likes me… you know how the camera knows you’re photogenic? That’s not me.” After some initial wariness she is induced, in a delightful improvisation exercise about a shopper buying a dinner service, to throw plates and dishes against a wall. At first she is protective of the plates – “What’s it ever done to you?” – and then, with relish, away they fly.  This woman achieves something none of the other participants do, which is to get under the skin of the tutor. He tells her – sincerely and with liking and appreciation – that he’s impressed that she has taken her experiences and, instead of turning them into blocked rage or the desire for revenge, developed “this incredibly beautiful emotion called sadness.” He is right; the short black and white scene she acts in at the end of her story is, indeed, beautiful, and she is a wonderful actress.

The power of Self Made is that it reveals people’s hypocrisy and the ease with which childhood pain can turn into hatred and then into a fetish, a sexualised death drive whose target is often a projection or shift away from the real perpetrator. There is a local council worker named Asheq Akhtar [I had originally misheard this as 'humanitarian aid worker' and have now rectified it] in the group, a guy who’s always felt he didn’t fit in. He cries during every session and says that his worst fear, the most awful thing he can imagine, is being an aggressor – but he is very easily persuaded into kicking, with sickeningly powerful thuds, the corpse of a pig, which has been chosen because it is similar in density, weight, size and consistency to a human body. He really enjoys himself, then dissolves into solipsistic tears afterwards. This youngish man grew up with an absent father and is tormented by the memory of an abusive boyfriend of his mother’s, but when he is asked to do a word association exercise, looking at three static and silent actors posed to represent a father, a mother and a son, it is the woman he expresses the greatest hatred for. In his projection she is just a wife and mother, a contemptible parasite who has allied herself with a rich man out of “laziness” and “desire for an easy life."

It’s extremely disturbing that this person, the one who seems like the nicest and gentlest guy, appears in the end to be the biggest misogynist. When it comes to putting together the film he’ll be in, his fantasy is one of extreme violence against a physically vulnerable woman. In his real life, however, none of the aggressors or perpetrators have been women. They have been men. In justifying his choice he says that this is because it’s the worst thing he can imagine, but the quickness and zeal he brings to it and the self-pity he shows every time tell a different story. This makes his finished piece the most horrifying of the lot. It is excerpted at the beginning of Self Made and sets a tone of foreboding and concealed danger which permeate the whole project.

There is a terrifying underlying theme to the film, a terrible real thing moving beneath the surface: the commonness of male abusiveness towards women and also towards other men. All the aggressors and perpetrators, bullies, beaters, yobs and abusers identified by the participants are men. An air steward has joined the project because she wants to come to terms with the fact that her father was absent, left her mother to start a second family and often let her down. This young woman is intelligent, with a likeable bluntness and a determination to overcome her pain. It makes the heart lift to see that she makes quick progress which permeates and transforms her life beyond the film.  

Self Made reveals the wounds adults bear from their childhoods. Time has not healed them, it has made them suffer more. The cuts have gone deeper. They have spread. The pain has coloured everything. It has twisted their personalities in long-lasting and sometimes perverse ways. The sufferers know immediately, when asked, what has caused their pain. They know what the problem is, who the fault lies with and what effect it has had. An energetic young man who works in a bar explains the effects of childhood bullying: “It made me worthless.” When asked what makes him feel worst these days he says without a second’s hesitation, and with tragic simplicity, “Seeing people happy.” He conducts other actors in a recreation of a bullying incident and, again by that strange projection I have described, he seems to get off on directing the actors playing the bullies, his eyes bright with excitement as he breathlessly darts around the improvisation, urging “Take off his hat, it makes him more vulnerable – take off his jacket – knock him to the ground, he’s nothing.” In a stunning moment of violent ecstasy he acts out a wordless revenge attack after spotting the bully alone in a train carriage years later.

The variety of the ways these people act out their pain is intriguing. The woman with the absent father confronts him in an eloquent scene from King Lear; one in which she is tearful, but Lear is indifferent. The woman who wants love enacts a scene of mutual tenderness and poignancy. The local council worker viciously attacks a woman, crying crocodile tears all the while. He defends himself by saying “I wanted it to be metaphorical.” Guess what, pal. It isn’t. You really did just brutally attack a woman.  Dave, the suicidal, untrustworthy man only appears to hurts himself, in a grandiose performance which elevates him to heroic status. And it is all very interesting and very creepy and very haunting.

Gillian Wearing is to be congratulated once again. Self Made is an unflinching masterpiece of psychological horror.

*UPDATE, as at 11th October 2011. Dave, one of the participants in the film has emailed me. This is what he has to say. All capitalisation, spelling and grammar original and unedited:
dateTue, Oct 11, 2011 at 9:45 PM
subjectSelf Made, a film directed by Gillian Wearing (your review of)
Hello Bidisha,
     my name is Dave, I am one of the participants in Gillian Wearing's Self Made that got an art house cinema release at the start of last month. I read Your rather eloquent review that You posted earlier in the year, I suppose this is what You'd call a bit of (albeit belated) feedback.
     First of all I'd like to say thankyou for Your criticism as criticism in my book is of far more value than indifference and much of it is even quite valid, Your efforts may have even gone some way to raising the film's profile if only on the web.
     I'm glad that despite the inclusion of (maybe too many) males in the film You found it extremely interesting and totally absorbing, for what it's worth it was actually quite an interesting project to take part in.
    Your review which I thought was very impressive (and I'm sure You'll forgive Me if I say I found slightly amusing due to this anti-male thing You've got going on) does however contain a couple of errors. just for the record Asheq is not a humanitarian aid worker, He works as an arts development officer for a council based on the outskirts of South London. Also unless I've got My maths skewed the 16th of August, 2016 is not nearly 15 years in the future but less than 5. No big deal. That's all I wanted to say really. Anyhow best wishes and I hope You have a great life.  Dave