Cinema and Media Studies Sally Potter
Sophie Mayer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0219


Sally Potter (UK, b. 1949) is the director of nine feature films (as of 2016), as well as a number of experimental short films. Yet she is also a choreographer involved in the formulation of contemporary dance in the United Kingdom, a training that is visible across her oeuvre, and particularly in her own leading role in her fourth feature, The Tango Lesson (1997). An improvisational jazz musician, she also co-composed the score for Orlando (1992), the film that came to define her to international consciousness, with many critics perceiving it as her first film due to the gap of a nearly a decade between its release and the premiere of her first feature film, The Gold Diggers (1983). From the international avant-garde success of her first film, Thriller (1979) through to the semi-autobiographical political narrative of Ginger & Rosa (2012), Potter’s on-screen career traces the vagaries of feminist film and activism in the West; Thriller was as formative for feminist counter-cinema and psychoanalytic film theory as Orlando was for New Queer Cinema and queer and trans film theory. Influenced by readings of her early films through feminist psychoanalytic film theory in the emergent feminist film journals of the early 1980s, overviews of Potter’s work take place primarily within the framework of feminist film and/or performance studies. Yet her interdisciplinary practice is reflected by an interdisciplinary reception: as well as within orthodox psychoanalysis, Potter’s work has been read within adaptation studies for Orlando, Latin American studies for The Tango Lesson, Marxist studies, medical humanities, philosophy, theology, and translation studies. Her internationalism in production and narration is reflected in the publication of studies, across her career, in Danish, French, German, Polish (a book-length study comparing her work with that of her contemporary Jane Campion), and Spanish, as well as international Anglophone scholarly publications outside the United Kingdom and North America. From Orlando fan sites onward, Potter has accrued copious online coverage that mediates between the scholarly and the popular, reciprocally integrating new media into her filmmaking from the interactive website for Yes onward through her digital archive SP-ARK (cited under Reference Works).

General Overviews

An internationalist in terms of production and subject matter, Potter has been the subject of career overviews by British, Scandinavian, American, and Polish scholars, with book-length studies (Fowler 2009, Mayer 2009, and Radkiewicz 2001) published in two languages across three countries: a rare achievement for a contemporary female filmmaker. Macdonald 1998, Mayer 2009, and Radkiewicz 2001 all pursue the question of feminist auteurship, Radkiewicz 2001 through comparison with Jane Campion and in relation to a question of individualism versus the choric or collective as a feminist issue. For Macdonald 1998 and Fowler 2009, Potter’s emergence from avant-garde film and “expanded cinema” is key, while Jerslev 2000, Mayer 2009, and Rich 1998 theorize this centrally in relation to performance and the female performing body. Rich 1998 outlines the difficulties of distribution and reception for such complex work, asking how many other films Potter might have made had The Gold Diggers received a stronger mainstream reception. All authors recapitulate the argument (see Reference Works) that Potter’s singular vision as a filmmaker emerges from her performance background and political engagement; for Fowler, Potter’s 1970s formation is the key to reading her work, while Mayer and Rich stress her evolution to address crucial issues at given moments. For Mayer, Potter’s background in performance informs her attention, within narrative filmmaking, to under-theorized or feminized aspects of filmmaking such as color, gesture, and speech, while for Macdonald and Rich it attaches her narrative work to an avant-garde history. All six texts account for Potter’s as a coherent body of work strongly marked by Potter’s intellectual as well as creative biography. This coherence continues across media, decades, and modes of filmmaking, emerging from both feminist and experimental practice, whose crossover Fowler sums up, in a chapter title, as a “search for ‘a frame of her own’” (p. 22). For both Mayer and Radkiewicz, by contrast, Potter consistently breaks the frame (particularly the fourth wall) in order to enjoin the active spectator to participate in making the film.

  • Fowler, Catherine. Sally Potter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

    Fowler weights the book toward Potter’s earlier work, and offers valuable analysis of her performance art, short experimental films, and expanded cinema in relation to a modernist lineage of feminist experimentation, using the earlier work to read the performativity and attack of her feature cinema, particularly its frequent breaking of the frame, which revises the dominant gaze.

  • Jerslev, Anne. “Sally Potter’s ‘ecrands seconds’: A Reading of Sally Potter’s Work.” Nordicom Review: Nordic Research on Media and Communications 21.2 (2000): 275–290.

    Reading Potter’s oeuvre to 1997 backwards through The Tango Lesson, Jerslev theorizes the films’ performative reflexivity via Metz’s concept of l’ecran second (the second screen), as a feminist strategy for producing structures of inscrutability, particularly around the body and (auto)biography of the female performer/character.

  • Macdonald, Scott. “Interview with Sally Potter.” In A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. By Scott Macdonald, 397–427. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    In-depth career overview containing rare biographical information about Potter’s start in filmmaking via her uncle’s partner, Sandy Daley, and the avant-garde milieu that pushed her to go “beyond the edge of the frame” (p. 405). Potter also discusses her 1980s TV documentaries and her short film The London Story, giving an overview of a coherent continuum of practice emerging in different forms.

  • Mayer, Sophie. The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love. London: Wallflower, 2009.

    Mayer’s book interleaves chronological chapters on individual films with thematic chapters concerned with Potter’s relational aesthetics, such as performance, gesture, voice and music, color, and poetic language. Mayer argues that Potter’s film language is rooted in the feminist internationalist ideal of reaching out dialogically to an active audience.

  • Radkiewicz, Małgorzata. W poszukiwaniu sposobu ekspresji: O filmach Jane Campion I Sally Potter. Krakow, Poland: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2001.

    Radkiewicz underlines Potter’s interdisciplinarity, situating her within British feminist film theory and counter-cinema of the 1970s. Her central thesis is that, within a feminist framework, Potter uses her interdisciplinary training to make work that is at once subjective and collective, both personal and political, encompassing self-expression and the will to make social change.

  • Rich, B. Ruby. Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    Rich’s personal account spans from the release of Thriller, her primary example of what she terms “reconstructive” feminist film, to the release of The Tango Lesson, but focuses on Thriller and The Gold Diggers. The pragmatics of feminist film distribution and reception are outlined, including the divided opinion about The Gold Diggers, concluding with Rich’s visionary 1980 review of Thriller (227–232).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.