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DEREK (director/writer: Isaac Julien; cinematographer: Nina Kellgren; editor: Adam Finch; music: Simon Fisher-Turner; cast: Tilda Swinton (Narrator), Derek Jarman; Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Colin MacCabe/Eliza Mellor; Kino; 2008-UK)
Brilliantly serves as a touristy tour into the gay and avant-garde world of Brit cinema.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brit filmmaker Isaac Julien(“Young Soul Rebels”/”Looking for Langston”) directs and writes a lovely homage biopic to the late maverick openly gay Brit filmmaker Derek Jarman, who died in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 52. The film is mainly built around an extended interview with the accessible and unpretentious Jarman, while the lyrical narration is provided by the great Brit actress Tilda Swinton (who was in Derek’s artist community activist group and starred in many of his films from 1986 on, and in 2002 wrote in The Guardian “A Letter to an Angel” that expressed her affection for the artist who opened up his heart for her). There’s also personal archival footage and film clips from the auteur’s films (such as Sebastiane, Edward II, The Tempest, War Requiem, Jubilee and Caravaggio). Since Jarman’s roots are as an artist and set designer (did the set for Ken Russell’s The Devils), therefore he explains his film visuals are in the context of an artist rather than as a filmmaker.

The unique biopic gives the resolute artist, who revealed in 1986 to the public that he was HIV positive, a chance to tell his story in his own words without talking heads, and thankfully because he’s so articulate is up to the task.

Derek speaks warmly of his homebody caring mom and not so affectionately of his bullying patrician wartime bomber pilot father. His parents were married in 1940. While aged 10, in an exclusive boarding prep school, the lad is caught innocently in bed with another lad and humiliated with a school beating in public and spent his childhood years persecuted by his upper-class schoolmates. In the 1960s Derek finds his rebel voice and after a trippy stay in the States returns to London to have his first gay encounter in 1964 at age 22 and to hook up with a gay artist group to live the life of an artist in a communal setting in an abandoned corset factory. Derek freely talks about gay sex being an important part of his films, and claims his controversial films were only political because they were made.

The easy-going but incoherent pic brilliantly serves as a touristy tour into the gay and avant-garde world of Brit cinema, and should be valued as a record of Jarman’s unvarnished thoughts coming from his own lips and a chance to see how he managed to live the life of the artist without selling out to commercialism. At one point when asked how he would like to be remembered, he astonishingly replies that he would like to disappear completely and take all his work with him.

Jarman’s fans undoubtedly will get more out of this non-critical biography than others, as there are too many holes in his story, both in his personal life and work, to give us much more than a cursory look at what he was all about. But because of his great intellect, charm and frankness, Jarman comes across as the appealing but defiant maker of daring idiosyncratic pioneering queer films that have appealed largely to a gay audience but should also appeal to the open-minded viewer in search of ‘raw and dusty’ experimental films. The pic ends with his heartfelt words of wisdom, urging us “to have less dependence and more love” in this world.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”