Derek: Portrait of a Saint

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    The focus of this article is Isaac Julien's 2008 documentary Derek, which celebrates the life and work of film-maker, artist and gay rights activist Derek Jarman. The film interweaves archival footage, segments from Jarman's films and the musings of his friend, Tilda Swinton, with footage from an extended interview with Jarman filmed shortly before his death. The film divided critics upon its release. While some warmed to its affectionate portrait of its subject, others complained that it offered too little insight into Jarman's work, and was a strangely conventional film about a notably unconventional figure. This article places the film within Julien's oeuvre and argues that it is indeed one of his more conventional exercises in what he terms poetic documentary, for at the centre of the work is an unreconciled tension between the desire to give a straightforward account of Jarman's life and achievements, and Julien's more experimental impulses. The article briefly addresses the complexities of Jarman's work and character and his own flirtations with poetic documentary before concluding that Derek offers a hagiographic view of Jarman's life in the original sense of the term: that is, Julien offers Jarman up, not unproblematically, as a kind of modern-day secular saint.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)137–147
    Number of pages10
    JournalStudies in Documentary Film
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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