Saintmaking: the canonisation of Derek Jarman by queer ‘nuns’

Director Marco Alessi speaks about the genesis of the documentary Saintmaking and working with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

A new Guardian documentary, Saintmaking, tells the tale of a group of queer “nuns” in 90s London who decided to canonise Derek Jarman – film-maker, artist, gardener and more – as an act of political protest.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are the London house of an international order of gay male nuns who, by 1991, had become radical left-wing activists and vicious critics of the UK government’s lack of care in confronting the Aids crisis. Frustrated that “exactly £0 had been spent on research” and seeing their community suffering and dying as a result, they decided they wanted to make a stand and make someone a saint – but who? Diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and a master of many forms of activism, Jarman was openly gay and open about his illness – he was the perfect candidate. So on 22 September 30 years ago, the Sisters took a trip down to Prospect Cottage garden in Dungeness to lay hands on their beloved Dessie.

Negatives from photos taken of Derek Jarman’s canonisation in 1991.
Negatives from photos taken of Derek Jarman’s canonisation in 1991. Photograph: Denis Doran

We spoke to director Marco Alessi about the genesis of the film, shooting with the Sisters and what he hopes will come of the project.

Director Marco Alessi behind the scenes with Sister Belladonna in Glorie de Marengo in 2021.
Director Marco Alessi behind the scenes with Sister Belladonna in Glorie de Marengo in 2021. Photograph: Rosanna French/The Guardian

How did you first come to know about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?

A number of years ago, a dear friend and mentor of mine gave me a stack of Derek Jarman’s books for my birthday. Encountering Jarman in his writing was a bit of a watershed moment for me as a queer person. I hadn’t really encountered a first-person account of queer life in the 80s and 90s before and nothing remotely resembling LGBTQ history was mentioned as part of my education. It was Jarman that taught me about the Sexual Offences Act, section 28, the age-of-consent debates, HIV and Aids in the UK.

At the end of At Your Own Risk, Jarman talks about 22 September 1991: a day he often referred to as one of the happiest of his life. He describes a radical group of activists, gay male nuns, turning up at his cottage and holding a beautiful, silly, searingly witty ceremony declaring him a queer saint. The activists were the London House of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A bit more research revealed they were part of an international order of gay male nuns with groups all over the world performing radical queer and left-wing activism, essential HIV and community fundraising, and other things that, in their words, “expiate stigmatic guilt and promulgate universal joy”. And so my obsession began.

Derek Jarman with the nuns at Prospect Cottage garden in 1991.
Derek Jarman with the nuns at Prospect Cottage garden in 1991. Photograph: Sandy Powell

Why did you decide to make this film?

Saintmaking emerged from a fiction film I have been working on at the same time called The Bower. The Bower adapts Jarman’s canonisation into a drama about a lesbian that had been at the event in 1991, who returns to Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness 30 years later with a young employee who has recently been diagnosed HIV positive. It’s a film about queer inheritance and the continued stigma around HIV today, in spite of the medical advances that mean people can live long and healthy lives without passing it on.

While researching for The Bower, I discovered a blog written by Sister Frigidity of the Nocturnal Emission that mentioned the canonisation: View from a Fridge. We got chatting, and she put me in touch with Sister Belladonna in Glorie De Marengo, whom I met for a coffee. A shoebox of incredible photographs was produced and stories began to flow about the Sisters’ time together – some joyous, some filthy, some infuriating. Bella also shared his concerns that many of these anecdotes were at risk of fading into the mists of time. With the 30th anniversary of the canonisation approaching, I felt I had a duty to make a record of what had happened, and alongside producer Lily Slydel, we pitched the idea to the Sisters and the Guardian – thankfully they were as enthusiastic as we were about getting the project off the ground.

The Sisters reviewing photographs on set
The Sisters reviewing photographs on set. Photograph: Rosanna French

Tell us about your creative vision for the project and how it came together

Prior to filming, the London House hadn’t been in a room together for over 20 years. So to get a sense of them as a group, we had a preliminary Zoom meeting – they called it a “nuncheon”. It was a riotously good time. They are their own storytelling engine. They talk over each other, they take the piss out of each other, they are spilling over with love for each other. They slipped straight back into their old dynamics, and so I knew I wanted to have a self-led nuncheon at the core of the film, rather than make things overly formal.

It also felt important to get a visceral sense of the disarming power the Sisters have when walking down a street. We cast five actors to shoot around some of the Sisters’ old haunts in central London, inspired by the amazing photographs of Denis Doran, Sandra Wong Geroux and Ed Sykes that Bella had shown me from the Sisters’ shoebox.

The Sisters protesting in London in the 80s.
The Sisters protesting in London in the 80s. Photograph: Sandra Wong Geroux

The Sisters had also said very early on that it was important to them that the fifth Sister from the canonisation should be a part of the story. Sister Jack Off All Trade Master of Nuns, Simon Kennett, or “the blue nun”, had passed away from Aids-related illness in 1997. It was sadly just after the release of the lifesaving antiretroviral drugs that mean that people today can live long, healthy lives with HIV. Simon’s presence in the retrospective reconstructed footage highlights Simon’s absence in the present day – the Sisters remember and relive events while negotiating the trauma of the losses they experienced.

Sister Jack Off All Trade Master of Nuns played by Pete Machale
Sister Jack Off All Trade Master of Nuns, played by Pete Machale. Photograph: Rosanna French

The big question for me was always whether the Sisters would re-manifest. I didn’t want to push too hard for them to dress as nuns again in case it felt inauthentic now. But as Bella says in the film: “Once you’ve had a bit of wimple itch, you never go back.” With a green light for our wonderful costume team to make nine habits, it felt right to bring them into contact with their actor selves and let the past and present collide. It’s an image of queer inheritance designed to reflect the idea that we as queer people are conditioned by the way our forebears and community elders shaped the cultural landscape we’re born into. The actors playing the nuns are all queer themselves, so I also saw potential for the final moment to poignantly bring together two different generations on screen and show the beauty of queer intergenerational community, which happens so rarely.

The Sisters and the actors playing their younger selves meet in Trafalgar Square.
The Sisters and the actors playing their younger selves meet in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Rosanna French

How does this film speak to current times?

Hopefully it speaks to the long-lasting and incalculable impact of speaking truth to power in any form you can. At a time when a lot seems fairly hopeless, seeing how the Sisters found ways to channel an even darker sense of despair into positive action is deeply inspiring.

Another important moment for me is when Mother Mandragora talks about the realisation that her time as a gay male nun was a formative part of her journey towards living openly and confidently as a trans woman. She says the Sisters were met with all kinds of homophobic abuse, which was a kind of trial run for trans existence today. There is an epidemic of senseless transphobia in the UK, especially in the press and certain allegedly feminist circles. Kell draws the line quite clearly between the two times: so much of the hateful language is the same, and just like the abject homophobia of Thatcher contemptuously saying “children are being taught they have a inalienable right to be gay”, the rampant transphobia of today will show itself to be on the wrong side of history.

Mother Mandragora and Sis Fridge.
Mother Mandragora and Sis Fridge. Photograph: Denis Doran

Tell us more about the impact you hope Saintmaking will have on viewers

In a time of grievous oppression and loss, the London House of the Sisters found ways to celebrate the beauty and power of the queer community as a part of their activism. My hope is that viewers will feel encouraged to tap into their inner Sisters and use that energy for good and start to explore different forms of activism in their own lives.

I also hope it motivates people to seek out intergenerational friendships, especially in the queer community, where so many of the stories and experiences people have to share have been actively stigmatied and erased.

What’s your best memory on set?

More than one memory springs to mind. The moment when the Sisters saw each other in habits for the first time in decades. Watching the Sisters instinctively start to help the actors put on their habits and give them advice. Bella very enthusiastically teaching the actors the Sisters’ dervish in Soho Square. Multiple people approaching us when we were filming with the actors on Old Compton Street, just to excitedly share their memories of the Sisters from back in the day. Experiencing the impact of the Sisters in the street as we all stepped out together for the first time. Deep joy.

Director Marco Alessi behind the scenes with Sister Belladonna in Glorie de Marengo.
Director Marco Alessi behind the scenes with Sister Belladonna in Glorie de Marengo. Photograph: Rosanna French

Contributors

Ekaterina Ochagavia and Charlie Phillips

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