Dir: Isaac Julien. UK. 2008. 76mins.
A collaboration between film-maker Isaac Julien and actress Tilda Swinton, Derek is a fondly remembered film essay on the life and art of iconoclastic British film-maker Derek Jarman (1942-1994). The documentary is arranged through disparate parts that occasionally play against each other and sometimes deny a cogent or analytical portrait of the artist.
Julien is at his best excavating the past, most memorably in his beautiful and evocative 1988 portrait of Harlem Renaissance poet and author Langston Hughes (Looking for Langston).
After a more painterly and abstractly-beguiling opening that beautifully deploys archival home movies from the late director's past, Derek is surprisingly straightforward.
Derek premiered in the world cinema documentary section at Sundance, the festival where in 1992 Jarman made one of his final American appearances for the screening of his Edward II.
Film Sales acquired world rights (outside of the UK) at Sundance. Jarman's name is likely to spur strong play on the festival and museum circuit, creating awareness for public television and specialised DVD.
Internationally, the movie premieres at the Panorama in Berlin. Julien mostly works around an interview which Colin MacCabe (the movie's producer) conducted with the late film-maker for a BBC profile.
The movie mirrors other MacCabe projects, like Baadasssss Cinema, A Brief History of Errol Morris and Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait by John Boorman. That footage is framed by the more rueful and melancholy observations of Swinton, the director's muse who appeared in seven Jarman works beginning with her debut performance in director's 1986 Caravaggio.
By his own admission a class traitor who gravitated to theatre, painting and film to escape Britain's rigid social order and find acceptance for his all but outlawed homosexuality, Jarman proves a funny and sardonic companion by rifling through his past and sketching out the political, sexual and social tensions that framed his private and eventually very moral odyssey.
The most interesting parts are his introduction to Swinging London, his apprenticeship with artist David Hockney, his work with British director Ken Russell as production designer on The Devils and a surreal journey through Vietnam-era San Francisco during the Height Ashbury explosion.
Julien annotates Jarman's reflections with generous film extracts, rummaging through Sebastiane (1976) through his valedictory work, the conceptually-brilliant and mesmerizing Blue (1994), a movie consisting visually of a continuous blue background and a gorgeously dense and thrilling soundtrack.
The film extracts certainly provide a sense of the director's working methods, but the sections require a more jaundiced critical eye.
Julien makes no separation of the work, not attempting to discuss the gorgeous poetry and power of movies like his apocalyptic Last of England or his remarkableThe Garden.
Julien occasionally inserts himself into the material, interpolating footage of him looking over Jarman's scripts or notes.
Derek seeps with an uncontrolled fury and anger at what his defenders regarded as the cruel manner the British establishment mocked or disparaged his artistic and political activity.
Swinton's voice over is acid tinged. It is perhaps over the top and self-aggrandising though it indicates the passion and commitment that Jarman located in his friends and collaborators. Jarman was in many ways a paradox.
A confrontational artist, his work is more probing and interesting in the quieter and poetic reveries. By the same measure Derek is probably better served by a harsher and less insider tone.
On the most direct terms, Derek succeeds in showing why this alternately infuriating and fascinating artist remains a vital and necessarily argued about and discussed film-maker.