Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing has created a new documentary exploring the life and work of writer George Eliot for the BBC. The Arena film, called Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s Life, also features an original score by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and airs tonight on BBC Four.
Experimental in tone, the film disrupts the expected documentary format, with the BBC dubbing it a “a polyphonic and unique portrait of the novelist’s unconventional life”. Some of its footage was captured from webcams and handheld cameras, while it also features dream-like anachronistic reenactments and an unpolished feel. Wearing enlisted local people from Nuneaton, Coventry and London (the places important to Eliot) to read from the author’s novels and letters, as well as explain the importance of Eliot to their lives. Syrian refugee and teacher Ahmad Kherallah, for example, talks about his experience teaching at the Coventry Bangladesh Centre, which occupies a building that was once Eliot’s home. Many of the people involved in the documentary were recruited through Twitter.
The decision to involve laypeople in telling Eliot’s story was inspired by the writer herself. Her 1870s novel Middlemarch, A Study in Provincial Life was radical at the time for its diverse cast of characters, whose intersecting stories explored topics like class, marriage, gender, religion and eduction. The documentary is narrated by actor Jason Isaacs (who some readers will recognise as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) and actress Shelia Atim, who also plays the role of Eliot in many of the documentary’s abstract reenactments.
The documentary is part of a wave of high-profile commissions by BBC Arts for the Arena series, including director Wernzer Herzog’s tribute to his friend, the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, and Nick Broomfield’s My Father and Me, a memoir woven in with a history of industrial Britain.