Saying “Yes”: Sally Potter’s Transformative, Collaborative and Independent Cinema

“Transformation is a key word in my films. There’s an invitation to ask the questions: ‘What do you see in other people, do you really see in them what they are? Who are you, what are you really?’ You’re not a fixed given. Take up the pen and write your own life or self-description: abandon it or explode it. You can change. That leads to a broader political principle: whole societies can change. It’s an anti-despair way of thinking… Choice is involved – perhaps not complete choice – but we can be part of the transformation.” (Sally Potter)

 Formally flexible, intellectually rich and emotionally astute, Sally Potter’s cinema works consistently to expand and adapt the film medium, and to make its viewers become “part of the transformation.” It is a cinema in which the heroine of an opera can rise again to critically investigate her tragic fate (Thriller); in which a screen icon belatedly challenges her own commodification and objectification (The Gold Diggers); in which a blocked filmmaker re-energizes herself through dance (The Tango Lesson); in which contemporary lovers converse in verse (Yes); in which a boy’s behind-the-scenes research project, posted online, inspires its audience to action (Rage); in which a man “becomes a woman” (Orlando). It is a cinema that seeks to remind viewers of their potential, challenging what its creator has called “the cultural discouragement at large.” An anti-despair cinema.

Characterized by fluid movement across art forms, Potter’s biography exemplifies the commitment to evolution that her filmmaking advocates. As a director who spent the first decade of her career as a dancer, choreographer and musician, she is a singular figure in British cinema yet one whose work nonetheless emerges from particular contexts: namely, the revisioning of inherited narratives inspired by postmodernism and second-wave feminism, and the muliplicity of experimental art movements that emerged in London in the 1960s and ’70s, in which she participated.

As such, Potter describes her influences as “the ragbag mixture of the autodidact.” Born in the English capital in 1949, the daughter of a music teacher and a poet, she recalls being “entranced” at a young age by her actress grandmother’s stories of life in the theatre, and, when loaned a camera by her Uncle as a teenager, soon announced her intention to become a filmmaker. Dropping out of school at 15, she attended art college before joining the London Filmmakers’ Co-op in 1969, essentially teaching herself the rudiments of shooting and editing. Formalist projects such as the three multiscreen installations Jerk (1969), Play (1970) and Black and White (1970) were made before Potter turned her attention to dance training, co-founding her own troupe, Limited Dance Company, and participating in several highly regarded site-specific performances.  

What did Potter’s shift to dance have to do with her filmmaking ambitions? “Nothing on the surface but a great deal underneath,” states the director, who, quoting Bazin on movement as the essence of cinema, credits her extensive work in dance and avant garde performance with teaching her a great deal about the art of film when she returned to cinematic production: “As a director you learn that every decision is in a way a choreographic one. Is the camera going to move or be still? Is the scene better if the characters are static and we move, or vice versa? As a choreographer I learnt how to direct, and as a dancer I learnt how to work.”

 Potter’s return to film came with 1979’s short Thriller, a feminist revisioning of La Bohème from the perspective of its tragic heroine Mimi starring Colette Laffont. The film’s success at various festivals led to the completion of Potter’s first feature, The Gold Diggers, in 1983. Made with an all-female crew, the film paired Laffont with the iconic Julie Christie in a teasingly opaque, playfully subversive and wittily cine-literate exploration of the heroine in cinema and the status of women in late capitalism. As exhilarating as it was demanding, the film was, in Potter’s words, “slaughtered” by the (mostly male) critics who reviewed it, leading to a knock in confidence that would find Potter spending the rest of the ’80s struggling to get another film financed and instead immersing herself in ambitious TV documentaries, including I am an Ox, I am a Horse, I am a Man, I am a Woman (1988), a study of women in Soviet cinema.

Potter’s long-delayed return to the big screen would be an auspicious one, however: an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic gender- and genre-bending novel Orlando, made in 1992. The film, with its lavish costumes and sumptuous set design, indulged in some of the audience-friendly pleasures of so-called “heritage cinema” while investing them with fresh wit, self-reflexivity and political resonance. Crowned by a fleet and deeply felt performance from Tilda Swinton, Orlando won numerous awards and brought Potter’s work to a wide international audience for the first time.

By now developing productions through her own company, the appropriately named “Adventure Pictures,” Potter returned to the dance-floor for her follow-up film The Tango Lesson (1997), stepping in front of the camera to play a filmmaker struggling with a new project and entering into a vexed but ultimately liberating collaboration with the famed tango dancer Pablo Verón. Potter’s next project, the bigger-budgeted The Man Who Cried (2000), was more troubled but the undervalued film boasts many pleasures, not least a magnificent performance from Cate Blanchett.

Superficially at least, Potter’s work has become more accessible, as evidenced by 2012’s Ginger & Rosa. Yet an element of bracing experimentation always remains, and so does a wide-ranging political gaze. Her 2004 film Yes engages with post-9/11 anxieties through its intimate focus on the relationship between an American doctor (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian). The characters communicate in Potter-penned iambic pentameter so carefully modulated that it sounds like natural speech while giving the film a hidden heartbeat connected to deep cultural memory. Rage (2009), meanwhile, mobilises digital culture and serious star power for a unique take on the fashion industry that emulates the aesthetics of mobile phone camera footage, as it presents its actors (including Jude Law, Steve Buscemi and Judi Dench) as a succession of “talking heads.” The film’s distribution – it was made available in cinemas, on DVD and online on the same day – was as innovative as its form, and Potter described the pared-down piece as an example of “barefoot filmmaking,” one which sought to challenge the excess and waste of much mainstream movie production.

Fittingly for a filmmaker whose beginnings could be described as artisanal, Potter has remained entirely independent-spirited as a director. Yet she also recognizes film as a deeply collaborative art-form and has developed long-lasting relationships with a diverse range of fellow artists, such as the jazz musician Fred Frith. Her 2014 book Naked Cinema: Working With Actors found her reflecting in depth on the actor/director relationship, and included fascinating interviews with performers that testified to her innovative and empathetic collaborative working methods. Small wonder that Potter described her recent film The Party (2017), made during the British EU referendum with a crew comprising Russian, Danish, Argentinian, Italian, French and other nationalities, as “the opposite of Brexit.”

By Alex Ramon