“Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.”
So ran the newspaper ad used to recruit participants for Gillian Wearing’s new documentary/art film Self Made, an exploration of the acting process known as the Method. Seven individuals were chosen from hundreds of applicants to create a character from scratch, as close or as far removed from themselves as they wish, and through a series of improvisations and workshops attempt to find an emotional truth within themselves to be referenced as a kind of sense-memory in performance, in this case a series of short, filmed vignettes.
By its’ very nature, the Method requires a deep emotional probing and personal psychoanalysis, and drama teacher Sam Rumbelow here assumes the role of both shrink and confessor, coaxing intimate details of insecurities and childhood trauma from his volunteers, the presumption being that if they can find a mental path to a given emotion then they can access it when required in front of the camera. Unsurprisingly, it’s all rather miserable stuff. Perhaps it’s the fault of the selection process (they were all initially interviewed prior to being chosen) but the participants all head immediately to their darkest places, no one chooses ‘delight’, ‘happiness’ or ‘surprise’ as their emotional recall, instead we’re presented with various examples of abuse, abandonment, bullying, and in the case of slightly worrying Londoner Dave, a British Travis Bickle in the making.
Bearing more resemblance to a particular kind of reality television than what I’d expected from a Turner Prize winning artist, it’s an often incredibly uncomfortable insight into both an acting process and the more universal use of performance within our lives. The participants are already fully fledged ‘characters’ when they arrive, ‘characters’ of their own creation, built, adjusted and perfected over years, it’s the version of themselves that they choose to present to the world, but a creation, or a ‘character’ nonetheless, something Rumbelow attempts to strip away to exorcise emotional demons and find a recountable emotional truth. We learn about the process by watching it unfold, there’s no explanation provided and little commentary on progress from participants themselves outside of the workshop. I’d have liked a little more context, perhaps an opinion or two from those involved on how they felt after the experience, by presenting it without any form of commentary it opens itself up to the question of exploitation, is an emotionally honest scene a worthwhile enough reason to be playing with peoples’ suppressed trauma? They’re all willing volunteers and there’s a genuine sense of personal catharsis in their final scenes, enactments of role play, fantasy and emotional closure that veer between the romantically naïve (Lesley’s wartime brief encounter), the trite but effective (Lian’s King Lear), the fetishistically fascistic (Dave’s Mussolini passion play) and the downright psychotic (Ash’s assault on a stranger).
Two of the seven volunteers disappear half way through the film, without us seeing their final scenes. It’s not commented on and I’m interested to know whether they quit the project or their sequences simply weren’t shown. It’s a fascinating film but one I wanted more from, an extra half an hour and a sense of the process, from the participants’ perspective, outside of the workshops would have added a context I felt lacking. We’re left however with an intimate portrait of a process that whether cathartic or exploitative, is at least consistently riveting.
Self Made – 2010 – United Kingdom – 83 mins – Dir : Gillian Wearing
Screening as part of the New British Cinema strand at the London Film Festival on Thursday 14th & Friday 15th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff