Derek Jarman, 9 great indie films not to be missed by the English filmmaker

Derek Jarman was born in England on January 31, 1942. He studied art in London and began painting, setting up several successful solo exhibitions. In the 1970s he openly declared himself homosexual and led public struggles for the rights of homosexuals. Later he has to fight against the AIDS disease which he was diagnosed as HIV positive in December 1986. Complications due to AIDS led to his death at the age of only 52. 

Non-conformism and audacity were the lifestyle of Derek Jarman, whose career ends with a little-known disease in those years, which also infects his artistic works and his vision of the world.

However, suffering does not prevent him from being a prolific artist and in continuous activity. Gardener, painter, director of innovative films and video clips, Derek Jarman has always remained in tune with his inspiration and has never stopped cultivating his creativity through a dialogue between the various artistic disciplines and political activism.

Derek Jarman’s films

Derek jarman’s cinema begins with experimental shorts in Super 8, a style perfect for his nature as an avant-garde painter, which he preserved over the years and developed in his first feature films: Imagining October from 1934, The angelic conversation from 1985, The last of England from 1987 and The garden from 1990. They are anti-narrative films where Jarman is always looking for new ways of expression of his figurative art. Editing is of fundamental importance for the filmmaker: he manipulates, colors, re-elaborates the images in a home movie style until they are abstract and symbolic evocations.

Derek Jarman ‘s first film: Sebastian, 1976

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His activity begins as a set designer and collaborator of director Ken Russell for the film The Devil’s in 1971. His first highly successful narrative film is Sebastian from 1976, an independent film with the theme of The Martyrdom of San Sebastian, shot entirely in Latin, with music by Brian Eno. One of the first British films to openly show gay sexuality scenes. The film causes scandal because it reworks the life of a saint in a gay way: Sebastiano is not persecuted and tortured by the Emperor Diocletian for his conversion to Christianity, but for a cruel feeling of jealousy. However, it is not a simple exhibitionism or desire for provocation, but a story in which the director identifies himself with the utmost sincerity. His political and artistic commitment and his private life will make him an icon of the 70s and 80s rebellion of the queer movement.

Derek Jarman between fantastic and documentary: Jubilee, 1977

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After Sebastian, he shoots Jubilee in 1977, set in the Renaissance period, in which he transports the story of Queen Elizabeth I of England to a brutal and wasteland. It is 1578 and Queen Elizabeth asks her alchemist to be transported to 1978 to learn about the future of England. She finds herself catapulted into a dystopian world, violent and in the throes of chaos, which only seems to be waiting for the Apocalypse. Jubilee has been called the only true English punk film that has inspired punk bands and singers such as Wayne County of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Jordan, Toyah Willcox and Adam and the Ants. The film is a new experimentation of Jarman through a mix of fantastic cinema and documentary. 

Derek Jarman and Shakespeare: The Tempest, 1979

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He then shoots a free and unconventional adaptation The Tempest of Shakespeare’s, in 1979. Jarman uses Shakespeare’s text to create a baroque and punk film that tells a gory tale of revenge. Also this work has as its foundation the gay imagination of the director, and his extreme and bizarre visual choices. The more classic storytelling and editing that can be enjoyed by a wider audience probably make it Jarman’s least difficult film. Filmed around Stoneleigh Abbey, a run-down area photographed by Peter Middleton, contrasting with scenes from the rich marriage in which Elizabeth Welsh performs. The style is quirky and overloaded, and eroticism is the main element in this work too. The film has a more traditional language and is a great success with the public.

During the 1980s, Derek Jarman continues his civil commitment to homosexual rights even in British schools and tries to raise awareness of AIDS. His 1980s films reflect these social and political commitments as in The Angelic Conversation 1985’s, with Judi Dench narrating Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 

Derek jarman and the last days of the life of Caravaggio, 1986

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Derek Jarman shot many experimental films in Super8 to raise the budget necessary for hisproject Caravaggio, of which he rewrote the screenplay 17 times. Released in 1986, Caravaggio had a good success and together with Jubilee became Derek Jarman’s best-known work, thanks also to the funding for distribution from British television Channel 4. Caravaggio is a film marked by the stylistic influence of Pierpaolo Pasolini’s cinema. , and marks a turning point for Jarman in film production. It is a perfect story for Jarman, which allows him to explore the boundaries between cinema and painting and to tell about homosexuality and the love triangle, themes that run through his filmography. His later films received more substantial funding from major television networks and cast, after actress Tilda Swinton starred in Caravaggio. The film is also a courageous experimental and anti-narrative style representation of homosexuality and of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings. A dying Caravaggio who retraces his entire life in Porto d’Ercole, in a limbo between memory and hallucinations. A world of thieves, murderers and prostitutes living in slums, told with poetry and lyricism, with extraordinary photography.

The last of England, 1987

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Later Derek Jarman moves further and further away from the classic narrative form and mainstream cinema, frustrated by the dependence on producers and the long waiting times to carry out his projects. He returns to using the Super 8 of his first films to have greater artistic and expressive freedom. The first result of this new phase is The Last of England, a merciless portrait of a country ravaged by rapid decay under the Thatcher government. It is one of the rare masterpieces of English personal cinema of the late 1980s, poised between video clips and cinematic story, with a frenetic and experimental editing, which unleashes an angry attack on the contemporary politics of false moralism. The difficult and subversive film that consolidates Derek Jarman’s perception as a rebellious and committed artist, spokesperson for minorities who are denied rights. Absolute author who uses cinema as a form of expression of himself and his vision and as a battle tool for social justice.

In 1989 he shoots War requiem with actor Laurence Olivier who signs his latest film performance and the inevitable presence of Tilda Swinton. It is an anti-war denouncing film that uses Wilfred Owen’s passionate humanist poetry and Benjamin Britten’s Requiem Against War soundtrack. Difficult work, which uses as a starting point a cultured music reserved for a niche audience, to which is added the avant-garde style of Jarman. The film is constructed as a puzzle of different elements which themselves become the core of the work. It is a story of friendship and solidarity under the bombs of the conflict shot with an extreme staging, a pacifist manifesto with a very complex editing work that includes archive images from the Second World War and on the war in Afghanistan and poems by a young man antimilitarist soldier.

The Garden, 1990

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During the making of another almost completely silent film, shot in the garden of his small house near the sea in Dungeness, The Garden, Jarman falls seriously ill. It is a dark film of reflection on one’s own existential parable, where the garden becomes a symbol of impossible salvation that unites the whole narrative. Various stories of love life and memories cross in an overwhelming flow of images: there is one’s suffering for the discrimination suffered by society for homosexuality together with the persecutions suffered by Jesus, the garden of his house that turns into the vegetable garden of Gethsemane. A desperate cry for help to arrive at a better and non-violent world, to get out of the curse of a repressive society that does not accept diversity and closes the best people in the ghetto. Jarman manages to complete the film despite the worsening of the disease but subsequently only devotes himself to less demanding projects. 

Edward II, 1991

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Now seriously ill Derek Jarman focuses on simpler projects to complete. He made with a completely independent production Edward II, probably one of the most important films of the British indie movies. A work, like many of the director’s previous ones, out of any scheme and out of the possibility of entering the mainstream circuits. It is the story of a king who, despite difficulties, does not give up having his lover close to him, yet another complaint against the difficulty of living his homosexuality freely. Once again Derek Jarman uses a historical drama to completely transform it, both narratively and visually, with a powerfully original staging. The historical setting and strewn with modern objects that are clues to the public, the court drama becomes political denunciation. The film is presented as a historical story told in traditional ways to reach the widest possible audience. The images, although very accurate and amazing, are more classic, but at the same time the violent tones and the political vision of Jarman becomes more decisive, in no uncertain terms. Contents become more important than style: there are fewer daring experiments than previous films but there is an urgent need for one’s message to reach the recipients. 

Wittgenstein, 1993

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Many thought that Edward II was the last work of Derek Jarman instead the director produces another experimental film surprising everyone with a tragic comedy about the life of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. There is no trace of his political denunciation and of the Queer activism that runs throughout his filmography, there is no anger or violence in the staging. Instead, it is a successful attempt to transform philosophy into cinema through the biography of the philosopher Wittgenstein, a completely different way of using the camera than mainstream cinema to show thoughts and concepts. One might think of a difficult film not suitable for the general public instead Jarman uses philosophy lightly, he tells the fears of the philosopher, creating an extremely enjoyable film. 

Blue, 1993

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While making his last film Blue in 1993 Derek Jarman progressively lost his sight. Over the years jarman’s films have become more and more abstract, in search of a spiritual vision that gets rid of the materiality of the image. In Wittgenstein he reaches a level of abstraction that becomes cinematographic philosophy. He goes further, denying much of his baroque image-overloaded filmography, with Blue, inspired by his partial blindness. Blue is a very original film that consists of a single shot of blue color that fills the screen accompanied by the soundtrack of Simon Fisher Turner and other musicians, in which Jarman recounts his life and his vision. A very rare type of film in the history of cinema that claims the priority of the word over images to give absolute priority to its message. When his eyes see less and less external reality, Jarman perceives blue as the greatest attraction, the color of the sky, the sea and the infinite. 

Four narrating voices tell fragments of memories, homosexual discrimination, fear of death, in a kind of unique stream of consciousness. An unusual and hypnotic cinematic experience that transforms the viewer into the listener, putting them in front of big questions and the director’s testament. 

A year after filming for Blue Derek Jarman dies of AIDS-related complications. Jarman was a cinematographic author who conceived and created a type of total cinema, eliminating any distance between art and life, using cinema as a profound tool for political, philosophical and existential reflection. He was one of the first artists in gay rights activism and creating an original style in pop music video clips for various artists such as Marianna Faithfull, the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. He has written several books, including an autobiography and reflections related to homosexuality and the difficulties of making films. He also created a famous cobblestone garden in his small wooden house by the sea, at Prospect Cottage, made with shipwrecks found in the area and endemic plants from the beach. 

He describes his gardening business like this: “… that’s what I always should have done, I never should have been a director, cinema is a thing for crazy people. Gardening is central, with gardening you enter another dimension of time, in the eternal, in the returns and in the resurrections “. In his spare time he also devoted himself to painting.

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