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Newby, Chris (1957-)

Director, Writer, Cinematographer, Editor

Main image of Newby, Chris (1957-)

Already renowned for some of the most visually and conceptually imaginative British short films of the 1980s and early 1990s, Chris Newby made two strikingly original feature films in Anchoress (1993) and Madagascar Skin (1995) before his brand of highly personal cinema fell out of favour with the UK's increasingly conservative film funding bodies.

Born in Leeds in 1957, Newby studied at Leeds Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art, where he began to make films. He spent the 1980s making a series of wordless, narrative-free shorts, of which the most widely shown was The Old Man of the Sea (1989), a bizarre, stylised film drawing heavily on traditional myth but giving the material its own distinctive visual spin. From the start, Newby was obsessed with texture and tactility, the contrast between natural and artificial creatures and environments both living and long dead.

Newby's reputation grew dramatically when he made the multi-award-winning Relax (1991), which was also his first film with spoken dialogue and a more or less conventional linear narrative, albeit peppered with characteristic Newby touches (notably some startling cutaways to blood coursing through the body, the only colour shots in an otherwise monochrome film). This heartfelt evocation of a young gay man's agonising ten-day wait for the results of an HIV test was acclaimed as one of the most successful products of the BFI Production Board and Channel 4's New Directors initiative.

Anchoress (1993), Newby's first feature, was also produced by the BFI. Shot largely in black and white aside from a single cryptic image, it attempted to convey the inner life of a woman who voluntarily had herself walled up next to a church, the better to dedicate her life to the Virgin Mary. Though narratively wayward, the film was visually extraordinary, owing more to European directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Walerian Borowczyk than any British models.

Newby's second feature, Madagascar Skin (1995), returned to the territory of Relax in its portrait of a disaffected young gay man, convinced that the facial birthmark in the shape of the island of the title makes him terminally unattractive. He nonetheless forms a hesitant relationship with an eccentric drifter, whose sexuality remains ambiguous. Sadly, this remains his last feature to date, and from the late 1990s Newby has returned to making non-verbal, non-narrative shorts, including Stromboli (1998), Flicker (2001) and Metamorphosis (2006). The onscreen evidence suggests that this may be the medium that he finds most congenial.

Michael Brooke

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Anchoress (1993)Anchoress (1993)

Ravishingly photographed feature about a medieval girl's visions

Thumbnail image of Flicker (2001)Flicker (2001)

Vivid, impressionistic depiction of Bonfire Night in Lewes

Thumbnail image of Old Man of the Sea, The (1989)Old Man of the Sea, The (1989)

Visualisation of the dark fantasies of an old, bedridden man

Thumbnail image of Stromboli (1998)Stromboli (1998)

Experimental, wordless portrait of the Sicilian volcanic island

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