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Potter, Sally (1949-)

Director, Actor, Editor

Main image of Potter, Sally (1949-)

Sally Potter is exceptional among directors in having made both successful commercial features and experimental films. Besides filmmaking, her career incorporates dance, choreography, music and performance art; these elements are interwoven in her films, all of which - while very different from each other - confront issues around performance, gender and genre and appeal to the significance of musicality and movement in a medium which is in essence non-verbal.

Charlotte Sally Potter was born in London on 19 September 1949 into an artistic family: her father was a designer and poet, her mother a musician. Both her grandmothers had been actresses and one of them, 'Hunny' Quennell, was to become a key influence in her life. Potter attended schools in North London, and had determined to be a film director long before she left school at the age of sixteen. During a one-year foundation course at St Martin's School of Art she learned draughtsmanship and composition, and between 1971 and 1974 studied dance and choreography at the London School of Contemporary Dance. Potter's apprenticeship as a filmmaker was at the London Filmmakers' Co-op, which she joined in the late 1960s.

Between 1969 and 1971 she made several short experimental films exploring cinematic time and space. Most of these early films are multi-screen pieces: Black and White (1969) is an eight-minute, two-screen piece; and Play (1971), at fifteen minutes, uses a double-screen format to 'play' with cinematic space in a film about children playing on a street. Daily (1971) and Combines (1972) are experiments in expanded cinema, combining live performances of music and dance with multiscreen film projections.

During the 1970s, Potter trod the boards, touring as a dancer, choreographer, musician and performance artist: with Alston's Strider dance company, with the Limited Dance Company, co-founded with Jacky Lansley, with performance artist Rose English, and with fellow musicians in the Feminist Improvisation Group (FIG).

In 1979, however, Potter's career entered a new phase with the launch of her 16mm short film Thriller, produced, scripted, directed and edited by Potter herself and funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain under its artists' films remit. Because its deconstruction of the heroine's role in Puccini's opera La Bohème was very much in tune with contemporary thinking in feminist film criticism, Thriller made an impact outside the contexts in which Potter had hitherto been working. It became a cult hit, and remains highly watchable today, undoubtedly because its gender reversal - Mimi, tragic heroine of La Bohème, investigates her own death, re-telling the story from her standpoint - is accomplished with wit and a lightness of touch.

Thriller's success brought Potter the opportunity to direct her first 35mm feature film, The Gold Diggers (1983), funded by the British Film Institute and Channel 4. Like Thriller, which draws a distinction between the romantic bohemian poverty of Rodolfo, hero of Puccini's opera, and the less glamorous poverty of seamstresses like Mimi, The Gold Diggers explores the relationship between economics and money on the one hand and women as icons and exchange objects on the other. The film, much of which was made on location in Iceland, involved an all-female crew and cast, including Julie Christie as the iconic woman, the star. Stunningly shot in black-and-white by Babette Mangolte, it includes numerous references to the history of cinema, from D.W. Griffith to David Lean via the Hollywood musical. But the film was poorly received, and this Potter attributes to its lack of a proper script, her own struggles with storytelling on film, and a failure to communicate with the audience. It would be nearly a decade before Potter returned to feature film production.

In the meantime, to get back into filmmaking after the disappointment with The Gold Diggers, she completed London Story, a fifteen-minute spoof spy thriller, in just three months. During the remainder of the 1980s, whilst trying to put together another feature production, she did some television work for Channel 4: Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage (1986), a series about emotions; and I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman (tx. 9/4/1990), on Soviet cinema.

Securing funding for Potter's films after The Gold Diggers has involved extraordinary feats of international deal-making and much effort and dedication on the part of her producers: her next feature and her first venture into mainstream art cinema, Orlando (1992), was eight years in the making. Potter's most successful film to date, this multiple award-winning production showcases her adventurous approach to the medium of cinema and her command of, and willingness to experiment across, a range of art forms. Her background in 'avant-garde show business' made her the ideal person to adapt and transform Virginia Woolf's playful hommage to the androgynous Vita Sackville-West - inspiration for the novel's gender-bending hero, played with consummately apt casting by Tilda Swinton. Potter's account of Woolf's novel remains faithful to the spirit of the original while being very much of the 1990s, its episodic narrative laconically and effectively leading the viewer through the many vicissitudes (including a sex change) of Orlando's 400-year career.

In her next feature, The Tango Lesson (1997), a cosmopolitan co-production, Potter returned to her interest in dance with a story about a film director (played by Potter herself) who becomes distracted from writing a Hollywood script by a fascination with the Argentinean tango, which she decides she must learn. The film deals with the attraction between Latin American and Anglo-Saxon cultures and between male and female, exploring the imbalance of power between men and women on the one hand and between the mainstream film industry and the film director on the other.

Potter's most recent film, The Man Who Cried (2000), a lavish historical drama with an international cast including Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, marks a return to more mainstream filmmaking. With an operatic theme and sensibility, this sensual, colourful melodrama set in various European cities in the interwar years centres on the story of a displaced young Jewish woman and her relationships with a Romany horse wrangler, a Russian dancer and an Italian opera singer.

Potter is the foremost woman director to have emerged in Britain in the last twenty-five years. Her work represents a characteristically British strand of artistically ambitious film-making, while being international in its reach. In artistic terms, her closest peers are Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway: Potter's work is as audacious as Jarman's and as visually sumptuous as Greenaway's, and yet is distinctive in its interweaving of image, performance and music and in its daring blending and transcending of genders and genres.

Ciecko, Anne, 'Sally Potter: the making of a British woman filmmaker', in Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 272-280
Florence, Penny, 'A Conversation with Sally Potter', Screen, v. 34, n. 3, 1993, pp. 275-284
MacDonald, Scott, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 397-427
Potter, Sally, Orlando, Based on the Book by Virginia Woolf (London: Faber and Faber, 1994)
Potter, Sally, The Man Who Cried (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
Potter, Sally, The Tango Lesson (London: Faber and Faber, 1997)

Annette Kuhn, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Gold Diggers, The (1983)Gold Diggers, The (1983)

Sally Potter's debut feature, a feminist reinterpretation of cinema history

Thumbnail image of London Story, The (1986)London Story, The (1986)

A political musical comedy set against famous London locations

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