Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.
Sally Potter was the recipient of the 2014 Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship, awarded after ‘Sally Potter in Conversation’ with Rona Murray. Potter’s certainly a worthy holder of the award and proved engaging in conversation. We know that women struggle in the resolutely sexist film industry and Potter, because she works on the fringes of the mainstream, must surely find it even harder than most of her sex to get her films made. The fact that she’s built up a substantial body of work, all screened during the festival, is a testament to her determination, as well as that of her producers.
Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard, who was also in attendance, set up Adventure Pictures in 1988 and the conversation was illustrated by extracts, provided by the company. I’m sure that even those, in the sizeable audience, that were unfamiliar with Potter’s work would have gained much from her observations. Particularly interesting were the ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the screen tests, including Quentin Crisp for Orlando, and examples of the 2000 girls who, via Facebook, submitted their own tests for Ginger and Rosa; though none were cast.
The conversation offered an insight into Potter’s way of working, which very much concerns getting close to actors to build mutual trust. Potter has managed to work with an impressive array of talent, given the non-commercial bent of her cinema; she says that she’s only failed to get ‘on’ with one (who remains nameless). In the Q & A, that followed the conversation, she was asked about the formal experimentation of her films; she replied that was rooted in her London Film Maker’s Co-op background. The fact that everyone, including Julie Christie, was paid £25 a day on her first feature, The Goldiggers (1983), suggests her political orientation, as does her feminism. Though, she noted somewhat ruefully, that didn’t mean some on the set didn’t work much longer hours than others. I was surprised to learn that Goldiggers was the first British feature directed by a woman since World War II; and shocked to hear that Barry Norman, on the BBC Film Night programme, likened Potter to Dr Johnson’s quip about a dog on hind legs. Yes, the industry is still sexist but not as bad as it was 30 years ago.
When asked if being able to draw on recognised ‘talent’ made it easier to get funding for her films I was surprised to hear that it was only a ‘marginal’ advantage. Then again, it’s true that the influence of Hollywood stars are in decline, with the rise of special effects ‘spectaculars’ dominating what’s bankable.
Mention was made of Potter’s new book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, which is described as the book she would have liked to have read when she started making films. That in itself is enough reason to read it.
As to the awarding of the award: it was a little anti-climactic, it was more thrust upon her; though Potter’s short acceptance speech was entirely gracious.