Self Made

Self Made

Gillian Wearing’s fly-on-the-wall performance documentary – featuring a cast of volunteer ‘non-actors’ – blurs film ‘boundaries’ and probes screen ‘revelations’. Mark Fisher is lost in questions and suspicions

Self Made
Great Britain 2010
Director: Gillian Wearing
15 mins | Cert 88


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

In 2007 the Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing places an advertisement online, in the press and in job centres asking, “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.” Of the hundreds who respond to the advertisements, seven people are eventually chosen to take part in an experiment. They are trained by Method-acting expert Sam Rumbelow, who takes them through a series of exercises – such as ‘basic relaxation’ and ‘sense memory’ – designed to induce them to explore their emotions and memories. Five go on to make vignettes based on their fantasies and their feelings. Lian’s ‘micro-drama’ explores her difficult relationship with her father via an updating of King Lear. Lesley, troubled by her inability to accept love, plays out a scene set during the Second World War. James’s micro-drama draws on his childhood experience of bullying. Dave expands on his fascination with Mussolini, while Ash confronts his feelings about the intense violence he fears he carries inside him.


An ordinary-looking man in his thirties is walking towards the camera holding a carrier bag. It could be you or me, and the streets he moves through, with their off-licences and corner shops, could be anywhere too – most people living in Britain wouldn’t have to go more than a mile to walk streets such as this. Still, something isn’t quite right: his expression looks distracted yet also troubled, while the music, an electronic drone punctuated by cries, creates an atmosphere of gathering unease. Suddenly, in the middle of the road, he stops, turns and drops the bag: it’s as if something in him has broken, as if he can’t take it any more…

It’s a powerful opening, but Self Made immediately retreats from its intensity. We learn that Self Made started with an advertisement placed by Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing: “Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.” Hundreds apply, but only seven make it through to the experiment. This involves being trained by Method expert Sam Rumbelow, in preparation for acting out a ‘micro-drama’ that will explore the participants’ memories and feelings.

Immediately I’m suspicious. Are these really the non-actors they are supposed to be? They seem remarkably unfazed by some of the exercises Rumbelow asks them to do, some of which you’d expect to cause non-performers a degree of embarrassment. I’m suspicious about my feelings of suspicion: isn’t this exactly the response that’s expected of me? A whole series of questions ensue. What is the boundary between performance and everyday life? Is there any such thing as a non-actor, since all of us are engaged in performing our identities?

Self Made

We’re in that familiar (art) space in which boundaries – in this case between ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ – are blurred. For much of its duration, the film puts us into that mode of listless sub-Brechtian questioning which so much art-catalogue language routinely invokes. The mode is deconstructive, demystificatory (or it is their simulation): we see the micro-dramas but only after we’ve been exposed to all the preparatory work that went into them; and afterwards, there are cutaways showing the crew filming the scenes.

Rumbelow comes across as an intensely irritating and creepy figure – more therapist-guru than acting coach, he’s horribly reminiscent of Hal Raglan, the scientist-therapist from David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) who encourages his patients to “go all the way through” their emotional traumas, with fatal consequences. Perhaps exploitation is integral to the Method, and perhaps one of the points of Self Made is to examine this… And perhaps Sam Rumbelow is playing ‘Sam Rumbelow’, annoying Method expert…

Wearing has said in the past that she was inspired by Paul Watson’s 1974 fly-on-the-wall TV documentary The Family, and Self Made clearly follows from such works as Confess All on Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (1994) or Family History (2006) in engaging with the problems raised by mediated ‘revelation’ – the issue here is precisely whether we are dealing with ‘revelation’ at all, or whether what we are witnessing is an effect of the filming process itself. (The same questions occurred to Jean Baudrillard, and it’s no accident that some of his classic essays on simulation focus on the fly-on-the-wall phenomenon.) Wearing’s work certainly has less in common with the brashness of 21st-century reality TV than it does with the convergence of drama, psychotherapy and social experiment that came together in the 1970s and continued on into the 1980s. In any case, there’s something horribly post-1960s in every bad way about the techniques that Rumbelow uses to ‘unlock’ the participants’ feelings. There’s no suggestion that Self Made endorses the discourses that inform Rumbelow’s practice, and the film’s most unsettling scenes – both concerning violence – at least raise the possibility that untapping and manipulating buried feelings may be catastrophic.

At one point Wearing conspicuously uses montage to highly charged effect, undercutting the sense – the illusion – of unmediated vérité. The participant James is re-enacting / reimagining a scene that took place on a train. He challenges one of the men who bullied him when he was younger and almost immediately appears to be consumed by a tempest of rage. He raises his fist to hit the other (non) actor and for a moment it seems as if he has struck his head with full force. We then realise, with a sense of relief that still doesn’t mitigate our horror, that Wearing has cut to James punching a dummy.

The film’s climactic scene is even more shocking. This returns us to Self Made’s opening shots. By now, we have learned that the man walking the streets is called Ash. This time, however, we see what he has turned around to do. Even though we know it is an illusion – after all, we have seen it being constructed – the image in itself is so sickeningly transgressive that no amount of alienation effects can dissipate its power.

See also

Quick cuts and slow change: Laura Allsop on how the Arts Council funding cuts will affect experimental filmmaking in the UK (June 2011)

Reflections in a golden eye: Nicolas Rapold on Fred Wiseman (September 2008)

Theatre of complicity: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Catherine Deneuve (April 2005)

A little learning: Peter Matthews on Abbas Kiarostami’s Homework (June 2002)

Soul in the Hole reviewed by Richard Falcon (November 1999)

The Idiots reviewed by Xan Brooks (May 1999)

Last Updated: 02 Sep 2011