A fascinating fusion of narrative and documentary cinema from artist filmmaker Clio Barnard, The Arbor tells the powerful true story of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too) and her daughter Lorraine. Dunbar wrote honestly and unflinchingly about her upbringing on the notorious Buttershaw Estate in Bradford and was described as ‘a genius straight from the slums’. When she died tragically at the age of 29 in 1990, Lorraine was just 10 years old.
The Arbor catches up with Lorraine in the present day, now also aged 29, ostracised from Buttershaw and in prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter for the death of her son. Through compelling interviews (with the actors seamlessly lip-syncing the words of the real-life subjects) we learn that Lorraine sees her mother as a destructive force throughout her childhood; an alcoholic who let her suffer abuse and whom Lorraine blames for all that is wrong in her life. Also featuring first-hand accounts from other members of the Dunbar family, this essential work presents a contrasting and not always flattering view of Dunbar. Distinctive, compassionate and compelling, Barnard is very clearly an important new voice in British cinema.
Jason Wood talks to Clio Barnard about her representation of socially deprived characters, her use of fiction and documentary and the challenges her filming method posed for the actors.
Jason Wood: Your work has constantly demonstrated a concern with the relationship between fictional film language and documentary. How did you wish to engage with the subject of previous representations of the Buttershaw Estate on stage and screen and what was it about the techniques of verbatim theatre that struck you as being appropriate for The Arbor?
Clio Barnard: Andrea’s fiction was based on what she observed around her. She reminded the audience they were watching a play by her use of direct address when The Girl in The Arbor introduces each scene. I see the use of actors lip-synching as performing the same function, reminding the audience they are watching the retelling of a true story.
My work is concerned with the relationship between fiction film language and documentary. I often dislocate sound and image by constructing fictional images around verbatim audio. In this sense, my working methods have some similarity to the methods of verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre by its very nature (being performed in a theatre by actors) acknowledges that it is constructed. Housing estates and the people who live there are usually represented on film in the tradition of Social Realism, a working method that aims to deny construct, aiming for naturalistic performances, an invisible crew and camera, adopting the aesthetic of Direct Cinema (a documentary movement) as shorthand for authenticity. I wanted to confront expectations about how a particular group of people are represented by subverting the form.
I used the technique in which actors lip-synch to the voices of interviewees to draw attention to the fact that documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones. I want the audience to think about the fact that the film has been shaped and edited by the filmmakers. Through these formal techniques I hoped the film would achieve a fine balance – so that, perhaps paradoxically, the distancing techniques might create closeness, allowing a push-pull, so an audience might be aware of the shaping of the story but simultaneously able to engage emotionally. Above all, my hope is that the film will provoke compassionate thought and reflection.
You recorded audio interviews with Lorraine Dunbar and other members of the Dunbar family over a two-year period to create an audio screenplay. To what extent did you allow this audio screenplay to form the basis of the film and was it during this process that you decided to make Lorraine one of the central voices of the film, thus opening up the project into a consideration of inter-generational neglect as well as a dissection of Andrea’s legacy?
The audio screenplay is the basis of the film and it was always the intention to do it this way round. I knew Lorraine was important because of her words at the end of A State Affair, which linked back to Andrea’s play Rita Sue and Bob Too. At the point the film was commissioned I knew I wanted to speak to Lorraine because of these words but I didn’t know what had happened to her in the 10 years since. Neither did I know how autobiographical Andrea’s play The Arbor was until I met Andrea’s sister Pamela. Realising the character of Yousaf in Andrea’s play The Arbor was Lorraine’s father was key. Andrea’s play, combined with the interviews with her family, means that the film can look across three generations of a family and three decades of a particular place. I hope that this allows some understanding of the destructive effects of poverty, racism and addiction to emerge.
The film has been praised – by Gideon Koppel no less – for depicting not only a physical landscape but also the internal landscapes of its characters – a difficult task to achieve. Was this something that you hoped to accomplish when you conceived the project?
I loved Sleep Furiously so it is great to have the film praised by Gideon Koppel. I hadn’t thought of it this way at all and like this way of looking at it.
The lip-synching technique you employ, in which your actors have to, not only learn words, but also master pauses and speech rhythms, must have been very challenging. What casting process did you employ and how did you help the selected actors to cope with the rigors of the production?
I worked with a brilliant casting director called Amy Hubbard, who brought in lots of actors who were up for the challenge. We asked the actors to try out the technique during the casting process. I have huge respect for the actors. It was very, very demanding of them. Manjinder Virk described it as being like learning a piece of music and being like circular breathing. It meant that they had to be very present – never thinking ahead or they would trip up. The actors were incredible, I think, and I’m indebted to them, not only for their remarkable technical skill, but for their ability to give true performances.
The approach that you take to the material and your concern with the boundaries between fact and fiction make for an incredibly immersive experience for the spectator. Did you wish to encourage an interpretative approach from the audience to what is on screen?
I wasn’t totally certain what the effect of the lip-synch would be so it has been fascinating to learn about that from people who have seen it. People say that paradoxically the distancing technique draws them closer. I think it may be because all the people on screen look you in the eye. Perhaps you actively listen.
I understand that The Arbor was not originally intended for cinema release. How did the extremely positive critical reaction and the numerous prizes it has steadily accrued contribute to the film being allowed to find a wider audience than you perhaps originally intended?
It was commissioned by Artangel as a feature-length film for TV. The UK Film Council became involved during development and that was when it became intended for cinema release. Tracy O’Riordan, who is a brilliant producer, made certain that UK distributors saw the film as soon as it was finished. We were lucky that Verve picked up the film. They have been great at getting the film out there. They work alongside Rabbit PR, lovely, committed publicity people who made sure the critics saw the film. The response has been amazing and unexpected. I don’t think you ever know how people are going to respond. I’m grateful to all the critics who were very open to and excited about the challenges of the film and to audiences for going to see the film and for their feedback.
Alongside recent works by Steve McQueen, Andrew Kötting, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy and Gillian Wearing, The Arbor shows the continuing strength of the ‘artist film’ in British cinema. Does this feel like it is an incredibly fertile period in which to be working?
Yes – I’m a great admirer of all these filmmakers. It is great that there is this strong strand of recent risk-taking British film, wonderful that these films are getting made and fantastic that they have found an audience. It’s exciting to think that The Arbor is part of that and for it to be associated with these films.
Interview by Jason Wood