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Film

Derek Jarman: The tragic life of a visionary

One of the greatest experimental filmmakers of the 20th century, Derek Jarman was an artistic titan whose legacy is endlessly enigmatic. Known for his unique ability to create cinematic frameworks which blended the domains of art and politics into beautifully grand visions, Jarman’s filmography is filled with moving masterpieces.

Born in 1942, Jarman was academically inclined and was very fascinated by the world of art. After attending King’s College London, Jarman enrolled in the school of Fine Art at University College London where he spent four years immersed in the pursuit of knowledge before deciding to open up his own studio in the city during the ’70s.

It was around this time that he started experimenting with a Super-8 camera, incorporating techniques that would become more prominent in many of his later works. Jarman actually entered the film industry by working as a stage designer, starting out by collaborating with Ken Russell on his iconic, controversial 1971 gem The Devils.

At the time, Jarman was already known for his uncompromising stance on gay rights and his resistance against the conservative effort to demonise homosexuality. He managed to wield art as a political weapon, breaking out into the frameworks of mainstream media with the 1976 historical film Sebastiane which is now cited as one of the first British cinematic projects to portray homosexuality in a positive light.

In addition to his filmmaking abilities and his knowledge of cinematography as well as set design, Jarman was an artist who was well-versed with artistic manifestations in multiple mediums. After his tragic demise, many found it comforting to read his autobiographical journal entries as well as his beautiful poetry.

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Due to his academic background as well as his talent, Jarman was a skilled painter as well which is apparent from the aesthetic frameworks used in his films. By invoking images of England’s past, Jarman created commentaries on the poor governance of the country during his lifetime which constantly relegated him to the margins.

Often called a cinematic alchemist, Jarman conducted fascinating investigations such as Jubilee which is now seen as a dystopian punk classic. The subjects he chose for his films were often wide-ranging but they had definite political purposes such as The Last of England’s angry and frustrated retort to the Thatcher administration.

Ranging from Wittgenstein and Caravaggio to Shakespeare and Marlowe, Jarman’s unflinching ability to weave staggeringly beautiful visions contribute to his status as one of the most interesting filmmakers of that era. Parallel to these well-regarded features, he continued to make experimental short films that are even more mystical than his features.

A major part of Jarman’s legacy revolves around his ability to convey the personal and there is no better example of that than his 1993 magnum opus Blue. Probably the most powerful experimental film ever made, Blue comes across as Jarman’s moving death rattle where a static blue screen dominates the visual narrative as the director utters profound and poetic revelations.

An openly gay artist, Jarman often expressed his disillusionment with the government’s depiction of HIV and he became a personal victim of the situation when he was diagnosed in 1986. At the time, the disease as well as the patients were vilified by conservatives during their homophobic rants which impacted public awareness in a very negative manner.

Jarman passed away in 1994 due to the complications that followed his condition, using Blue to remind everyone that most of his friends were either dead or dying because of the government’s unwillingness to educate everyone and their refusal to allocate proper resources to combat the condition. These developments happened later, thanks to public awareness campaigns and medical research but Jarman was long gone by then.

Blue was made that way because his illness caused Jarman to lose his vision in his final days. ”I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years,” he explained. “I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t…”

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