Gillian Wearing's feature film Self Made is well named as it's a study precisely of the making and unmaking of selves, a brutal and exhilarating endeavor that the British artist captures with aplomb.
At the film's start, a man strides across a street toward us, his countenance grim and his gait quick. The camera tracks backward with him, moving through a narrow brick alleyway as the wind scatters newspapers around his feet. Next, he exits a shop, crosses the street and then, as he marches up a small hill, he suddenly swerves around in a tight arc just as a woman, pregnant, rounds the corner. We hear a loud grunt as the scene cuts to black.
The sequence belongs to Asheq Akhtar, one of the seven people who agreed to participate in a 10-day Method acting workshop with instructor Sam Rumbelow in response to an ad Wearing placed inviting participants to "play yourself or a fictional character." Method acting, defined onscreen as "a theory and technique of acting in which the participant identifies with the role and renders the character in a naturalistic, non-declamatory and highly individual manner," becomes a tool not simply for the group to create convincing and emotionally resonant performances, but a structure within which to reconnect with buried memories and traumas. This reconnection enhances performance, to be sure, but it also, and perhaps more significantly, deeply affects each of the seven men and women personally.
During the first session, Rumbelow announces that "Method enables you to use your own personal history and your humanity to bring a dramatic moment to life." He guides the group through sound exercises designed to release internal tensions, which are felt, then named. For example, Asheq recalls his childhood isolation; Lesley longs for connection and meaning; Dave is preoccupied with death; James struggles with the bullying that marred his early life; and Lian grapples with her feelings of rejection by her father. These issues are explored through improvisational exercises and reenactments, and then each participant creates and acts in a fictional narrative. For Lian, the story is an adaptation of a key scene in King Lear; Lesley sets her story during WWII and plays a woman who needs but rejects affection; Dave plays Mussolini, battered and bloody; and Asheq pushes himself to perform a gruesome act of violence, hoping to find remorse for feelings still unreconciled.
The film is very much a recounting of the workshop, but it is so deftly constructed that it creates a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, packing the punch of a great story as well as the wallop of reality. The melding of fact and fiction faces innumerable pitfalls, and the history of film is rife with very bad examples. Self Made however, embodies its own mandate, creating a structure that allows truth to emerge from the welter of memories, emotions, hopes and desires as they're confronted. Or so it seems. Self Made is not naive enough to suggest that the truth it offers is somehow pure, real or more grounded than the act of finding and discerning that truth. The film, then, is both a record of that process for seven people, and a mandate for the rest of us to think long and hard about the self - our own self - and its making.