Derek Jarman

By Sally Potter

When Derek Jarman died many, many of us ached with the loss of a friend and constant source of amazement and inspiration.

He made art with whatever he had, and whatever he touched became art. This ability not only meant he was constantly producing, but also meant that he functioned for other artists as a massive contradiction to despair about slender means. If you have a pen, you write; if you have a paintbrush, you paint; if you have a camera, you film; if you have some earth (or sand, or shingle), you make a garden. He was a living example of how to see what is around you and transform it in such a way that its significance becomes visible to others.

As a man he was gracious, angry, flexible and generous. And he was handsome. He had a wonderful mouth, full of humour, keen watchful eyes and a deep chuckling laugh which created an atmosphere of inclusiveness. One felt warmed by his presence and honoured to be included in it.

I first became close to him in the Soviet Union in 1985, when we were both there in a small delegation of independent film-makers. As the only gay male and the only female directors in the group we became natural allies – laughing together as we spoke for our respective causes and against our oppression. And there, as everywhere, he demonstrated his genius for collaboration. In Baku, one shadowy evening, he pulled out his Super-8 camera and said with infectious enthusiasm, ‘Let’s go and film.’ Within minutes I was his keen and willing assistant.

Somehow his being pervaded even those later films which he had, of necessity, worked on from some distance. He had the skill of delegation: he could steer and shape a work most precisely at the very moment he gave the people working with and for him the most freedom.

To other directors such as myself, he was unfailingly generous and encouraging. Even during the periods when I did not see him, I had only to think of him to feel inspired by his tenacity, good humour in the face of desolation and sheer commitment to the business of being an artist. He knew the nightmarish frustrations of trying to get films financed, and had the good grace to acknowledge the struggles of others.

An example: he invited me to interview him in public as part of a series at MOMI and then – typically invited me to say how it was for me at that time, struggling for years to get Orlando made. And then, in a sweet gesture of solidarity, he presented me, excitedly, with a first-edition copy of Orlando he had found in the Charing Cross Road.

Of course, he could be venomous too there was no false politeness. He was a fierce critic of others’ work and of our times.

In the years since his HIV status became so public he presented an image of such dignity, courage and good humour that even potential attackers were charmed. In this way he was able to make a real difference in the lives of many gay men and lesbians, by using his celebrity as a platform for better information, both about gay-ness and about AIDS. He also presented us all with ways of thinking creatively about death.

His gift to cinema was to present a vision that was variously satirical, lyrical and personal. The shimmering, fleeting landscapes he shot on Super-8 appeared in films that grew like the gardens he nurtured; sometimes rampant and apparently indiscriminate, overblown, overgrown things of chaotic beauty. At other times, razor-sharp social commentaries. He understood the art of the diary both written and cinematic, anecdotal, fractured, complex and heartfelt.

His was a body of work freely given and gradually refined; always committed to making relations between things and people, the abstract and the figurative, the political and the aesthetic. He made it seem possible to be both an artist and an agitator, to be angry and to love.

He reminded me somehow of a compassionate monk, surrounded by friends, lovers and devotees, flourishing his pen, his paintbrush or his camera in a flamboyant gesture that said ‘Yes!’

We were blessed by his enthusiasms, awed by his output, inspired by his courage and fortitude. And reminded that this business of making pictures is both a transcendent act and a political statement every time.

Bless you, Derek, and thank you.

Sally Potter, director of Gold Diggers and Orlando, is presently working on a musical (In the Beginning).