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Review: Blue Bag Life


- British artist Lisa Selby contends with memories of her heroin-addicted mother, in this documentary-memoir co-directed with Rebecca Lloyd-Evans and Alex Fry

Review: Blue Bag Life

The ultimate unknowability of our loved ones and our own fragile selves are the subjects of the sombre first-person documentary Blue Bag Life, co-directed by Rebecca Lloyd-Evans, Lisa Selby and Alex Fry. One can’t proceed through life without accruing some measure of trauma: Selby, both the subject and the partial creator of the film, bravely puts her disproportionate haul on display. Nursing her own addiction issues, and those of her estranged mother Helen and jailbird boyfriend Elliott, it’s as if she’s burdened with three lifetimes’ worth. A homegrown production that premiered at last autumn’s BFI London, where it won the Audience Award (see the news), Blue Bag Life is beginning to travel, having won a Golden Alexander at Thessaloniki (see the news) and another Audience Award at Hainan IFF in China. It goes on general release in the UK this week, courtesy of Modern Films.

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Combining Lisa’s own voice-over rumination with precious camcorder glimpses of Helen, the film initially seems to be a vehicle for the former to extricate and consecrate memories of the latter. A flower child who idolised Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane in her youth, and never seemed to cross the threshold to adult responsibilities, Helen abandoned her only daughter when she was ten months old, and her separated and more stable dad took on the parental duty of care. But Lisa idolised her absent mum in turn all throughout her first decades, as she flitted in and out of her life whilst wrapped in the mire of heroin addiction. Heavily formalised with a pre-written questionnaire, and self-shot on her gunge-caked kitchen table, a video interview we see brief snippets of seems to be the only moment Lisa could truly interrogate or cross-examine her mother, for lack of friendlier terms; later, her camera patiently scans her deserted, needle-strewn Greenwich council flat following her death from breast cancer, as if continuing to reach out in lieu of her actual presence.

With Lisa enjoying a comparatively prestigious life as a mixed-media artist and university lecturer, the film came about in collaboration with Lloyd-Evans, a professional documentarian for the BBC: the artfully composed images of ruin, with an added touch of the photographer Richard Billingham (whose film Ray & Liz [+see also:
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interview: Richard Billingham
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was a recent Locarno competitor), seem to derive from the former, whilst the latter took on her archive of self-shot footage and stills, whittling it into the film. Whilst real insight into Lisa and her overall personhood is more elusive, there’s no ambiguity in the impact that Helen and Elliott have on her, with the latter’s secret drug-trafficking life and addiction issues providing an echo of her mother’s, albeit one she can attend to without feeling like he’s also slipping through her fingers, away from her tight clasp.

Blue Bag Life occasionally has the sense of entropy that can mar addiction and recovery narratives; once the various traumas have been laid out, with little closure, the viewer can wonder if the film has reached a cul-de-sac. But it reaps further wisdom and visual variation in a closing montage obliquely referencing Lisa and Elliott’s attempt to conceive – another deferred echo of her desire for the continuity of family. A baby bird – all puny pink skin and bones – cradled in its mother’s nest peeps into the bottom of one shot: it’s not a cliché, and it’s more than a symbol. It’s the impact of Blue Bag Life in one single frame.

Blue Bag Life was produced in the UK by Tigerlily Productions, with support from the BFI Doc Society Fund and BBC Storyville.

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