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Self Made: Film Review

The Bottom Line

Non-actors strip down emotionally to build something creative in this open-ended, not quite satisfying documentary.

Venue

Los Angeles Film Festival

Featuring

Sam Rumbelow, Ash Akhtar, Lesley Robinson, Dave Austin, James Baron, Lian Stewart, Simon Manley, Jerome Prince

Director

Gillian Wearing

The first documentary from British conceptual artist Gillian Wearing chronicles a three-week period in which non-actors were immersed in a Method workshop.

The first feature by British conceptual artist Gillian Wearing, Self Made is an experiment in creativity that has far more resonance for its participants than it will for most audiences. The documentary chronicles a three-week project that immersed seven non-actors in a specially devised Method workshop. They would each star in a short film designed to embody the inner truths they’d worked to lay bare.

With a premise that’s likely to intrigue students of theater and psychology (although they won’t need the onscreen definition of “improvise”), this selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival would be a good fit for arts-oriented TV schedules. But the prospect of watching sense memory exercises is a doubtful lure for most moviegoers.

The subjects’ willingness to expose themselves doesn’t entirely allay the sense of intrusiveness that hangs over the proceedings. They were chosen from hundreds who answered a simple ad — “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character” ­— and their receptiveness to new ideas is key. In an apparently unheated space in Newcastle (most keep their coats on), Method teacher Sam Rumbelow guides them through a series of exercises, scenes and rehearsals. He’s an exceedingly clear-eyed, even-keeled facilitator as he nudges them toward the mother lode of emotional truth and listens to dark confessions (one man has chosen the date of his suicide).

Still, as the camera prowls the rehearsal space, it’s easy to see why some acting teachers broke from the Method, choosing not to focus on the personal psychology of the performer. The liberation and expression of emotion doesn’t have to rest on the unraveling of the actor — but in Wearing’s fast-track scenario, it does.

The five shorts that are included in the doc were written by Wearing and playwright Leo Butler (a fact made clear in the press notes but not in the film) and range from period B&W drama to stylized updates of Shakespeare and contemporary slices of life centered on acts of terrible violence. The power of some of the participants’ performances is unquestionable, and there’s a certain purity to their work because they’re unfettered by career-driven posturing.

“I don’t think the camera likes me,” fortyish Leslie, a sweet-faced blonde, says at the outset of the film. One of the most memorable group members, she has disproved that statement by film’s end. Those blind spots in self-awareness are among Wearing’s concerns. Having explored self-expression in much of her previous work, with Self Made she examines the notion of identity as a kind of performance and performance as a way of breaking through self-consciousness.

They’re rich fields of inquiry. But by the time the carcass of a pig — poor innocent creature — is enlisted for an acting exercise, the concept of self-indulgence overshadows the quest.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: A UK Film Council and Northern Film & Media presentation in association with Arts Council England, Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation and Abandon Normal Devices of a Fly Film production in association with Third Films
Featuring: Sam Rumbelow, Ash Akhtar, Lesley Robinson, Dave Austin, James Baron, Lian Stewart, Simon Manley, Jerome Prince
Director: Gillian Wearing
Screenwriters: Gillian Wearing, Leo Butler
Producer: Lisa Marie Russo
Executive producers: Kate Ogborn, Marc Munden
Director of photography: Roger Chapman
Production designer: Jamie Leonard
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Creative consultant: Sam Rumbelow
Co-Producers: Samm Haillay, Duane Hopkins
Costume designer: Mel O’Connor
Editors: Daniel Goddard, Luke Dunkley
No MPAA rating, 88 minutes