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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Say Yes to Sally Potter !

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

With Sally Potter's latest film The Roads Not Taken being released in September 2020, and Orlando being curated as part of the 5th Femme Filmmakers Festival, here's a short potted history of one of my favourite and UK's most innovative filmmakers.

Sally Potter began making amateur films when she was 14, when she was given an 8mm camera from her uncle. She dropped out of school at 16 (in 1965) to pursue a career in filmmaking, initially as part of the London Film-Makers' Co-op, where she made a series of short experimental short films, including Jerk (1969) and Play (1970).

She returned to education and trained as a dancer and choreographer at the London School of Contemporary Dance, and then 1972 founded the Limited Dance Company with Jacky Lansley, focusing on creating performance-based art; and directing award-winning theatre productions.

Potter returned to filmmaking in 1979 with a short film, Thriller. Her first feature film was The Gold Diggers (Potter, 1983) starring Julie Christie. She continued making short films and new work for television including The London Story (1986); a documentary series for Channel 4, Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage (1986); and I am an Ox, I am a Horse, I am a Man, I am a Woman (1988), a film about women in Soviet cinema.

During this period, as well as her film work, Sally Potter was also embedded in the British counter-culture music scene. She was in various music bands including the Feminist Improvising Group (formed in 1977) and The Film Music Orchestra. She collaborated (as a singer-songwriter) with composer/oboist Lindsay Cooper on the song cycle Oh Moscow which toured widely in the 1980s. Potter would go on to collaborate on the scores for Orlando, The Tango Lesson, Yes, Rage and The Road Not Taken.

In 1992 she won international acclaim with an adaptation of Virginia Woof’s Orlando starring Tilda Swinton, which revels in the themes of gender as a social construct. The Tango Lesson (1997) and The Man Who Cried (2000) are both striking works that fit with her themes of gender, performance and facades.

Although Potter’s film output is not prolific, it always offers the viewer something to challenge. The dialogue in her 2004 film Yes, written in response to 9/11, is all in iambic pentameter, the majority if it in rhyme. The film’s budget was £1m, with almost half coming from the UK Film Council with the cast and crew working on deferred payments.

Her subsequent film, Rage (2009) is told from the point of view of a blogger working at a New York fashion house, who shoots behind-the-scenes interviews on his mobile phone. The film was the first film to be debuted on mobile phones; the film was shown in seven episodes, beginning on September 21, 2009.

Ginger & Rosa (2012) and The Party (2017) demonstrate her unerring skill at getting to the heart of family dynamics and friendships over time, whether that time period be decades or a single evening.

Her 2020 film The Roads Not Taken appears to be another small-scale family-centred drama, as it follows a day in the life of Leo (Javier Bardem), who is suffering from dementia. The film is dedicated to her brother Nic who has Pick's Disease, a type of dementia.


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