Life after death

When Colin MacCabe heard that Derek Jarman was grievously ill, he went to Dungeness to record a last

The making of Derek began nearly 18 years ago, in March 1990. I was skiing in America when the Independent telephoned me. Could I write an obituary of Derek Jarman, who was expected to die in the next couple of days? I had known Derek for five years, ever since he had made Caravaggio at the British Film Institute, where I was head of production. He had become a good friend.

As I sat down, grief-stricken, to write the obituary, I became conscious not only that I did not know enough about his early life, but also that I was working in the wrong medium. He was both a painter and a film-maker; an obituary without images seemed inadequate. In fact, Derek recovered from that brush with death, as he was to recover so often over the next three years. We agreed to spend a day recording in images his own account of his life, which I would then use in future to make a film obituary. This footage would eventually form the basis of Derek, which goes on show this month at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

At that time, the director Bernard Rose was living in my basement, and we set out with a small crew to spend the day at Derek's cottage in Dungeness. When we arrived, Bernard made a decision that was crucial to the force of Derek's words 18 years later: there would be no change of camera positions or focus, apart from reloading the cameras, and the crew would leave Derek and me entirely alone. The day was exhilarating - any day with Derek was exhilarating - but it was also desperately saddening because he was speaking from the position of imminent death. It was not until ten years after he died that I could bring myself to look at the material.

By the time I did so, it was 2003, and Bernard Rose was making horror films in the Carpathian Mountains. Bernard and I had no doubts about who should replace him as director: Isaac Julien would always have been the perfect choice. He was one of the many younger gay artists whom Derek had encouraged, he shared Derek's dual formation in art and film, and he had an acute understanding of the politics of film. He was so disillusioned with British cinema that he had abandoned film-making to produce a string of dazzling art installations. I had long wanted to get him back to cinema, and in 2002 I had persuaded the Independent Film Channel in the United States to let him make a history of blaxploitation, which had been a huge success.

By the time I proposed the film to Isaac I was much clearer about what Derek's obituary might be. It would use the interview footage as the spine of a film that would be made up of a tissue of formats and genres. First, there was his father's brilliant amateur footage that captured Derek as a child; then there was Derek's own Super 8 footage, which he had shot continuously since 1970, capturing his own life and times. There were the feature films, all unambiguously autobiographical, and finally there was the newsreel footage of Derek as a gay activist and the first public figure in Britain to declare he was HIV-positive. The gamble was to produce an experimental film woven out of myriad formats and genres. It would take as its theme the history of postwar England, but adopt the simple structure of a Hollywood biopic: the artist's repressed childhood blooms into liberated youth. He finds mature love, only to be ambushed by disease and death.

Isaac was entranced by the footage and its visual possibilities. He was also adamant about one thing: the film would not be an exercise in nostalgia. It had to be set in the present, with a contemporary political message. In the 1990s, who would have believed that both of Derek's institutional patrons - the British Film Institute Production Board and British Screen - would be abolished by a Labour government? They were replaced by the United Kingdom Film Council (UKFC), which funds commercially secure films only, so that the Lottery money invested can be recycled to pay grossly inflated bureaucratic salaries.

In the film, we use the words of Jennie Lee, Labour's first minister for the arts, as she opened the new Institute for Contemporary Arts building in the Mall in 1968: "A measure of the nation's self-confidence is its willingness to develop creative intelligence in its people." But the broader questions raised by the film are not just about the arts. What happened to the self-confidence that allowed the postwar generation to dismantle an empire and construct a welfare state? How did that come to be followed by the fear and bluster of Margaret Thatcher and her heirs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

These kinds of political considerations are central to Derek's films, from Jubilee (1977) and The Tempest (1979) to The Last of England (1988) and Edward II (1991). He predicted more clearly than anybody how Thatcher was incubating new Labour in the aftermath of the Falklands War and City deregulation. It is spelled out clearly in The Last of England and then brought to a powerful conclusion in Edward II, in which Tilda Swinton and Nigel Terry, in two of the most brilliant performances ever projected onto a British screen, presciently embody the nightmare marriage between the security state and new Labour.

By 2003, turning the conversation with Derek into a film was, for me, as much a political necessity as an act of friendship. In 1998 Chris Smith, new Labour's first minister of culture, appointed Alan Parker as chair of the British Film Institute. Parker had spent more than 20 years attacking the BFI and, once appointed, he set about dismantling it. British institutions are usually unbelievably statute-free, and so there were remarkably few legal protections for even such a body, with an illustrious history and a global reputation. There were no safeguards against a chair who conspired with a minister to change the organisation's legal status without informing the governors, the members or the wider public.

The prize for this institutional butchery was the UKFC. Stalinist in both economic model and institutional ethos, the UKFC is as perfect an example of unproductive government expenditure as any economist could wish for. No one now knows how many unseen films are produced in Britain, because the body responsible for the figures is the UKFC. When the figure for these unseen (and, indeed, unwatchable) films topped 40 in 2002, the UKFC decided to stop producing the relevant statistics.

When Derek began his investigation of non-narrative cinema in The Angelic Conversation (1985), he was funded with tiny sums from the BFI Production Board. When he took the experiment further in The Last of England it was British Screen that provided, and recouped, the modest sums required. There is now no national body in Britain prepared to back such experimental ventures. If you go to the Arts Council, it says it can help you only if the Film Council is involved. The television channels produce the same initial response. The Film Council thus monopolises the funding of cinema in Britain.

Derek would not have been made, were it not for Jarman's connection to the art world. Channel 4 finally came to the table after the Serpentine Gallery agreed to a Jarman exhibition, curated by Isaac Julien. Film London's decision to launch an award linking film and art delivered the money that got Derek off the ground.

Isaac found his link to the present in the "letter to Derek" that Jarman's closest collaborator, Tilda Swinton, delivered to the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2002. An adapted version of that speech provides the film with a counterpoint in the present to Derek's voice from the past. When Derek was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Tilda spoke eloquently of the reaction to the letter and its subsequent publication in Critical Quarterly. She was besieged by letters, phone calls and emails from people who recognised its call for creativity against the dead hand of corporate bureaucracy.

What Derek embodied in his life and death was a belief in art and creativity that today is everywhere under attack. What Tilda's letter and Isaac's film do is to celebrate an aspect of the past that many would prefer to forget.

"Derek" runs at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, from 23 February to 13 April as part of the "Derek Jarman Curated by Isaac Julien" exhibition season, following the film's UK premiere on More4 (19 February). For more details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn