In over 30 years as a filmmaker, Sally Potter has never told the same story twice. She also hasn’t filmed a screenplay she didn’t write or adapt, and has constantly demonstrated curiosity in the possibilities of the medium, expanding our understanding of what a film can be and do. Even Potter’s most mainstream films, like Orlando (1992) or Ginger & Rosa (2012), expose her experimental and avant-garde roots.
From her first feature, The Gold Diggers (1983), she has fused her training as a dancer with her work as a choreographer and director of theatre/opera to occupy a unique space within the British film industry. Like that of her contemporaries, Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway, that space is defiantly on the outside. It’s a position that has granted Potter the freedom to continue making films her way – telling stories that straddle the personal and political, that put women first and that are boldly intellectual.
Potter received her first camera for her 14th birthday. Born Charlotte Sally Potter in London in 1949, she left school at 16 knowing she would be a filmmaker, listing it as her profession in her passport. Rather than enrolling in film school, Potter studied music and dance. Her first experimental short films were made at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op in the early 1970s and played around with time and space – the building blocks of cinema. Potter’s dance background has manifested explicitly in both The Gold Diggers and The Tango Lesson (1979), and less literally in all her films, through her attention to how bodies move in relation to each other and the camera.
Wonderful women populate Potter’s cinematic world. They are women who actively follow their desires and test the limitations of their social roles; women who make mistakes, mess up and move on. While Potter identifies as a feminist, she has expressed some concern with her films being labelled this way, “implying [that] they’re only for a certain audience of like-minded people and the film itself would preach that line”. Potter values her freedom to make films “without a prefix”. But like the work of Jane Campion or Andrea Arnold, Potter’s films satisfy a very real hunger in audiences for stories that push at the boundaries of the very narrow spaces women are usually permitted on cinema screens.
SBS On Demand has a double bill of Sally Potter films that push women to the fore for you to enjoy now.
Eight years in the making and based loosely on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando remains Potter’s best-known film. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the gender-shifting Orlando, a nobleman and poet living on ancestral lands in Elizabethan England around 1600. Making a Faustian pact of sorts with Queen Elizabeth – played seductively by queer icon Quentin Crisp – “to not fade, not wither, not grow old”, Orlando undergoes a fantastic transformation. He wakes up 200 years later, still young and beautiful, but with the body of a woman. Traversing nearly 400 years of English history, Orlando eventually drives herself into 20th century London on a motorbike. But Lady Orlando takes it all in her stride – as she notes upon her transformation: “Same person. No difference at all, just a different sex.”
This shift allows Potter to playfully highlight just how different it is for girls, as Orlando loses the right to her land and has her literary aspirations denigrated. Being female is tantamount to being “legally dead”, and Orlando finds herself powerless in areas where she was previously privileged. But not all the historical vagaries of gender are bad. Orlando’s first sexual experience with a man – dashing, raven-haired American adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) – is a revelation. “I’ve never felt better in my life,” Orlando declares.
As Swinton’s many asides to the camera reveal, much of what Orlando witnesses of men throughout history amuses her. A drawing room conversation with literary luminaries, including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, is designed to remind her that, as a woman, she is essentially useless. But Orlando, who has seen the world from both sides, has the final word on how to be a good man: “You are poets, each one of you, and speak of your muse in the feminine. And yet you appear to feel neither tenderness nor respect towards your wives or towards females in general.”
Potter began writing Yes on 12 September, 2001, and the film is very much the product of a post-9/11 world that seems to be fracturing into madness. Yes takes in a broad spectrum of political concerns, attuned to the anxieties of race, class and religion. But it does this predominantly through a passionate affair between two people on either side of these divides – an unhappily married Irish-American woman played by a luminous Joan Allen and a sensual Lebanese Muslim exile (Simon Abkarian), a qualified surgeon forced to work as a waiter and cook in London.
The pair are known only as She and He in the film’s credits – a designation that gives them both universality and fragility. And through their story, Potter explores the powerful transformations that occur when we say "yes". Language is central. Yes is written entirely in iambic pentameter, which grants the dialogue poetry and romanticism, and creates a space for the simultaneous expression of thoughts and feelings. “Conversation was an aphrodisiac once,” and it’s with words that He first seduces She at a function, where her politician husband, Anthony (Sam Neill), is ignoring her. Potter privileges female desire. He makes sure She understands that if she were his he would never leave her alone. She is flattered and overwhelmed. Later, talking dirty in a restaurant, it’s clear they are as aroused by their increasingly erotic prose as they are by each other’s bodies.
Yes is a sexy film. It is also, like all of Potter’s work, a deeply compassionate one. It treats the things that adults think and feel with the complexity and seriousness they deserve; it is empathetic towards the mistakes we inevitably make even when we think we are doing the right thing. Neither character is perfect. He feels that his body – stateless, eroticised – isn’t his own. He freely gives it to She, but as he tries to break free from her, he asks for it back. Within a politically charged context, it seems there are things that the East and West might never agree on. But the film’s final scenes are a sun-drenched affirmation of desire and intimacy in the most surprising places; a rejection of the darkness and insularity we embrace when we say no.