Clio Barnard mixes documentary and theatre in 'The Arbor'
Dave Calhoun sees this first-time British director as a major new talent
It doesn’t take long for the unease to set in while watching Clio Barnard’s extraordinary ‘The Arbor’. Barnard’s film returns us to the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, where the teen playwright Andrea Dunbar wrote ‘The Arbor’ in the late 1970s and later set ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’. Barnard’s film is partly about Dunbar, partly about her legacy and partly about the Buttershaw Estate itself. ‘I grew up near Bradford and knew the place through “Rita, Sue and Bob Too”,’ says Barnard. ‘I have a real affection for the film in a funny way. It reminds me of my youth.’
But it’s not the story of ‘The Arbor’ which makes us uneasy. It’s how Barnard tells it. Her film looks like a documentary: Dunbar’s relatives and friends talk to us from authentic-looking kitchens and living rooms. Yet we soon realise these are actors on location, lip-synching to recordings of the people they’re playing. Also, Barnard’s ‘documentary’ set-ups are not that at all. Some look real, but others are more poetic. One of Dunbar’s daughters recalls the time she and her sister set fire to their bedroom: we see an actress standing, as an adult, in a bedroom with a fire raging behind her. We also see interviews with Dunbar in the early 1980s and witness scenes from the ‘The Arbor’ being re-enacted today on Brafferton Arbor, the bit of the estate where Dunbar lived and set her play.
Fact rubs up against fiction and vice versa. It’s compelling and stimulating, keeping you on your feet but never distancing you from the story at its heart: the difficult life of Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, who is now 29, the age that her mother died, collapsing in a pub one day in 1990 from a brain haemorrhage.
For Barnard, all this trickery and mixing of styles and approaches is about making clear the limits of reconstruction and recollection. Versions of her technique are common in theatre, but she feels it has a different effect here. ‘I was interested in the aspiration to be authentic,’ she says. ‘Also I’m interested in how if you use a verbatim approach in theatre, it’s documentary, but in film it draws attention to the fact it’s a construct.’
Barnard is an artist and filmmaker whose short films have been shown in galleries and at festivals. This is her first feature. She also teaches film studies at the University of Kent, which throws light on the rigour of ‘The Arbor’. She cites British director Penny Woolcock and American documentarist Errol Morris as inspirations. ‘Especially what he said about direct cinema and its failings in terms of its claims of truth. You can’t pretend the camera’s not there.’
Read our review of 'The Arbor'
Author: Dave Calhoun
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