How am I not myself?

Asheq Akhtar

Self Made by Gillian Wearing is a fascinating piece of filmmaking. At once a documentary, art film and work of fiction, the participants were seven people selected from hundreds who responded to an ad that read, “Do you want to be in a film? You can play yourself or someone else. Call Gillian.” Taking the notion of the construction of the self as its locus, Wearing’s film peers into a process of dismantling the personas of these participants, through method acting workshops. Five of these would-be actors made short films that express a combination of fictional characters, and the ‘truth’ that they uncovered of their selves, in what is described as their ‘end scene.’

Using the visual language of reality TV, each of the participants is shown speaking directly to camera about who they are and what they hope to gain from the experience of being in the film. Lian is in her twenty’s and has unresolved issues with her absent father, Lesley is 40 and “single at the moment” and James was bullied at school. To begin with then, there is nothing apparently special about this collection of individuals. By the end of the film I wanted to know more, to see how this unmasking process would continue to affect their lives. Wearing chose people with strong personalities and stories to tell, in particular that of Dave, a man in his forties who has decided on the exact date of hid death. This revelation is one that is almost too big for Self Made, and crucially, Dave is a participant that continues to hold back throughout the process.

Fascinating though it is, Wearing’s first film for cinema casts the audience as voyeur. Her camera examines the expressions and behaviour’s of her participants as they are guided through breathing exercises and told to unlock their deepest feelings. Unsurprisingly, this yields very emotional responses both from those involved and concurrently casts a mood of empathy over the film as a whole. During one improvisation between Lesley and Asheq, I wondered from whose life this experience was drawn, if at all. The technique of stripping people down creates a sense first of familiarity – I felt I knew these people, and simultaneously drew out my protective feelings as a viewer. I wanted to hug Lesley.

All this ‘baring all’ of course wreaks of the popular confessional, something we are all well accustomed to with reality TV and social networking sites. What Wearing has attempted to do is to show that even when we think we are showing our ‘self’ to the world, it can actually be a very carefully constructed, though unconscious mask.

This mediated version of the self is each participants ‘end scene’. Through fictionalising the so-called ‘truth’ of their experiences and feelings, they are provided with an outlet to express their sense of themselves in the world.  Cinematographer Roger Chapman has created unique aesthetic moods for each of these, Lesley is lonely in love – her end scene is a nostalgic ode to romance of the past in the vein of Brief Encounter, and shot in black and white. James re-enacts his experiences of being bullied, aided by edgy camerawork and aggressive shadows. Each performance was utterly convincing, particularly Asheq, but I don’t want to ruin the shock of his piece by describing it.

Some may claim that Self Made exploits its participants due to the scenes of distress, but they were all volunteers, and fully aware of what the process would entail. I would argue that instead the film offers us a glimpse at just how complex the struggle between the internal and external self can be.

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