A cinema of small gestures. Derek Jarman: Super 8mm. 1970-1985

Form: The reasons for super-8 and how the medium dictates the form – e.g. non-narrative/sound rebuilt afterwards, the ‘quality’ of the image, the limited palette of 16 mm, 35mm.

Various concepts: The cinema of noise, a film which does not dictate to the audience, allows the mind to wonder and draws its own conclusions

reclaiming small gestures

the passion of a head turning

transforming a landscape [..].

Filming akin to a heartbeat [ ...] .

Notes for Psychic Billy’s Angelic Conversation. Papers of Derek Jarman, quoted in Tony Peake’s biography Derek Jarman


Derek Jarman (1942-1994), major British artist - painter, designer, writer, gay activist, gardener - started making films around 1970 – Super 8mm «home movies» as he referred to them. «These were vital years of learning his craft, experimenting with visual ideas and developing a personal style and sensibility. Interestingly, the range of approaches and scale that were to characterize his later films are already apparent in his first films.» (Michael O’Pray, Derek Jarman. Dreams of England, London, bfi 1996) The films of this period are records of his personal life and immediate environment as well as attempts to create a non-narrative, experimental cinema. Before he moved from «private» to public filmmaking – around 1975 – he showed these films mostly to his friends. His influence on young filmmakers like John Maybury, Michael Kostiff, Cerith Wyn Evans, Anna Thew and others who, in particular through their Super 8mm-work, broke away from the established avant-garde of the late seventies in England, can be strongly felt.

The feature films that Jarman made in following years - Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest - are all strongly influenced by his Super 8 work, and this is still the case with The Garden from 1990 . An «important strand threading through the early eighties was a re-examination, and consequent regeneration and ramification, of Jarman’s work in Super 8. In an 1985 interview, he is quoted as saying: ‘The feature film was an attempt to make a rapprochement between [the world of super-8] and the more formal world of filmmaking ... When The Tempest was finished, I thought perhaps I would be able to carry on making bigger films and somehow keep my subject matter [...] but it turned out to be impossible if I wasn’t to do what most people do, which is adapt a script and say this will be commercial. I could have easily done that at that point ... But somehow it was too late. [...] There was no home to got to. There was no consistent funding in this country for the smaller feature film. The Gay element made it even more difficult. [...] I went back to doing Super-8s and last year I finally had the courage of my convictions to say right, that sort of film-making, my own peculiar sort of film- making, is really my film-making’.» (Peake, p. 325)

His collaboration with James Mackay, which started in the late seventies, was crucial to Jarman’s continued carrier in film. In Jarman’s words he was «’the most faithful to an idea of cinema of all the producers with whom he worked.» (Peake) Not only did James Mackay find strategies to show «smaller» experimental films, which tend to be marginalized, together they developed striking new technologies which allowed them to move from the Super 8mm format to video, to 16mm and 35mm, which opened the door to large cinema audiences and international festivals. As can be seen in the poetic and complex work Angelic Conversation it was not just the larger format but more importantly the innovation applied to this which produced a new and fascinating aesthetic. This programme has been put together to show the multifaceted, specific aspects of Jarman’s Super 8mm oeuvre.

The presentation of the films on Betacam SP, 16mm blow up, and prints made from the original stock allows the audience to compare the different possibilities of exhibition and also to discuss the very particular problems of preserving and restoring Super 8mm film. I would like to thank James Mackay, Tony Peake and Heide Schlüpmann for their collaboration and support.

Karola Gramann


The Derek Jarman S8mm Film Archive

When he died, Derek Jarman left his S8mm film archive in my care. The archive comprises all the personal S8mm film work that Derek did between 1970 and 1983, and it contains around 60 individual

titles which he filmed and edited. There are also 12 reels of compiled footage (It Happened by Chance - reels I to XII) and various other fragments. Super 8mm film was Derek Jarman’s primary medium in the 70’s. The archive consists of original S8mm reversal films, and is intact and in fine condition.
By the end of the 70’s, Derek had stopped screening his S8mm films almost entirely, as he was acutely aware of their fragility. In the early 80’s, he substituted video copies of some of the titles – consisting in a series of 3 x 1 hour tapes made for a screening within a retrospective of his work held at the ICA in London. At around the same time, Michael O’Pray and the Film Umbrella had S8mm copies made of some of the films which were toured in the UK and US (the master tapes and S8mm copies are included in the archive). Eventually these became the titles listed in all the filmographies, with the other works all but forgotten. In his biography (Derek Jarman, Little, Brown and Company, London 1999), Tony Peak clearly identifies when each of the works was made.

Over the past 18 years, I have managed to have 16mm negatives made of seven of the films in the archive. 16mm copies of four of these films rest in the National Film & TV Archive (copied in 1982 with support from the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemthek archive in Berlin). 16mm prints of three other titles rest in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou (who commissioned the copies) and Pacific Film Archive. All the original films are in the archive and are intact.

The Derek Jarman film archive is a unique collection, and in the opinion of the filmmaker himself, it contains some of his best work. I have created a viewing programme resulting in high quality video (BetaSP PAL 625) copies of the titles listed below.
 Derek Jarman projected his films using a Bolex projector which can run at either 18, 12, 9, 6 and 3fps. In fact he owned two of these projectors which he used to create the «optical» superimpositions and effects on films such as In the Shadow of the Sun and Waiting for Waiting for Godot. Some of the films are labelled with running speeds. With others it is relatively clear which speed they should run at. Partly though (when making video copies) it is a question of trial and error which is made more difficult by the relatively high cost of access to the equipment necessary to make speed alterations.

James Mackay

Unless stated otherwise all works are filmed and edited by Derek Jarman.