By Julien Allen
Dir. Clio Barnard, U.K., Strand Releasing
If it were not for the playwright Andrea Dunbarâwhose artistic career lasted from when she was 15 (she wrote her first play The Arbor for a school project, later picked up by Londonâs Royal Court Theatre) to her death at 29 when she suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on the floor of her local pubâthen the Buttershaw Estate, a housing project on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire, would merely be an unremarkable vestige of Thatcherâs Britain. There are hundreds like it scattered across northern industrial towns since the decline of Britainâs mining, manufacturing and textile industries. Instead, thanks to Dunbarâs plays (in particular the ribald comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too, filmed in 1986 by Allan Clarke) the estate which was her home and is also the backdrop to Clio Barnardâs film of Dunbarâs life, The Arbor, has become a vivid living landscape in its own rightâone that compels the viewer to look beyond the dingy brickwork and overgrown grass, and discover bit by bit the nature and extent of the bubbling human turmoil within its ramshackle walls. The lives of the inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estate feature throughout Dunbarâs plays, yet none of the injustice of their disenfranchised lives is decried and nor are any solutions proposedâthe value of her work is to persuade the audience to venture inside a place their every instinct would ordinarily compel them to pass by, and to listen to voices they would otherwise ignore.
The Arbor tells the story of Andrea Dunbar, but also of the lives of her children after her death. As a starting point it provides a companion piece to Dunbarâs work, but it ultimately achieves much more. It is a unique experiment in film, blending street theater, archive documentary footage, newsreels, and, most controversially of all, the lip synching of audio interviews with Dunbarâs family, by actors, filmed in representational form as if they were speaking the very words to camera. Originally devised from a desire to protect Dunbarâs daughter, Lorraine, who did not want to appear on film, this last techniqueâwhose closest predecessor might be Aardman Animationsâ short film Creature Comforts, in which plasticine animals vocalize the recorded conversation of âordinary peopleâ to comic effectâis introduced before the titles and is without question the filmâs biggest gamble.
The risk is both moral (oneâs immediate reaction might be that the film seems to be flaunting its dishonesty) and artistic (some of the âreconstructed footageâ at times seems close to the look of a public service announcement, warning of the perils of drink-driving or unprotected sex), but it ultimately pays off quite spectacularly, partly through Barnardâs ingenious and sensitive use of juxtaposition, but mostly due to the loyalty she shows to the sound recordings around which the film is constructed. The camerawork (elegant always, and at times achingly beautiful), acting (restrained), and editing (exquisitely judged) all submit to the primacy of the unrehearsed, raw, often devastating snatches of exposition that came from the mouths of the real protagonists: Dunbarâs sisters, children, and their foster parentsâthe inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estateâs âtoughestâ street, the Braffington Arbor.
Despite this âfakery,â we end up a long way from the Catfish/Iâm Still Here debate about the ethics and veracity of a number of current documentaries because the director is resolutely honest with the audience, making the viewer wholly complicit in the inescapable artifice of nonfiction films and underlining the impossibility of representing factual truth via a camera and an editing suite. In this sense it serves as a valuable critique of the documentary form and perhaps a warning against studiosâ growing appetite for it.
What should be confusing and distracting in The Arbor (the multiplicity of forms) actually becomes part of a surprisingly cohesive experience, reminiscent of experimental theatre. The Tricycle in London has for the past decade been a leading exponent of âverbatim theater,â which dramatizes court transcripts and interviews without changing a single word of text. This was a clear influence on Barnard, who had seen the Royal Courtâs verbatim play A State Affair, based on transcripts of interviews with Dunbarâs family in 2000, and she takes it a step further with the use of actual recordings instead of transcripts. So for example, in The Arbor we see the adult actor playing Lorraine Dunbar lip-synching a childhood memory about a fire in her bedroom, filmed in the bedroom itself with the fire starting behind herâa sort of double displacement (she isnât really there and it isnât really her, but it is her voice we hear); later we see the actor playing Lorraine in prison, watching newsreel footage on a television set of the real Andrea holding the real Lorraine in her arms, whilst the actress lip-synchs to Lorraineâs real commentary about that very same footage. We assume Lorraine herself was also in prison when the audio material was recorded, but have no way of knowingâmeanwhile we recognize on the newsreel other characters who are represented by actors in The Arbor.
Itâs fascinating, in an almost childlike way, to make the visual connections (not so far afield from the thrilling credits sequence of the Farrelly Brothersâ Shallow Hal, in which we see photographs of every single person creditedâkey grips, clapper loaders and all), but more than this primal curiosity, there is a very deliberate sense of distancing between the words and images, which serves both to elevate the real protagonists and shield them from exploitation, while simultaneously intensifying the absolutism of the words themselves as the only tangible âtruthâ in the film. Barnard has found in this technique a form of truth that seems to elude the vast army of documentary makers at work today. Unlike Tricycleâs verbatim productions, which include the Iraq Enquiry and court transcripts of miscarriages of justice, there is no pretense that the film will trumpet the truth of what happened, nor indeed that the protagonists of The Arbor necessarily speak the truthâin fact they are often violently at odds with one anotherâyet truth resides very palpably behind the words they use to express how they feel, their regrets and aspirations, their own accounts (personally slanted) of the events that brought them together and tore them apart. The film may bring to mind Errol Morrisâs 1978 doc Gates of Heaven in the canonization of the interview process, but we are actually closer to Jean Rouchâs seminal Chronicle of a Summer, as Barnard dismisses any attempt to uncover facts, instead engaging her protagonists on a subjective level, allowing them to speak without cross-examination and thereby disclosing an underlying human truth, undoubtedly much more ethereal but no less powerful, of the reality of these peopleâs day-to-day existence and the spiral of despair to which they seem inextricably locked.
Dunbar herself died before the interviews were conducted, so Barnard turns to her autobiographical first play, The Arbor, to tell her story. A small company of actors (including local actress Natalie Gavin, playing Andrea) stage excerpts from the play outdoors, directly on the Braffington Arbor. A makeshift âfront roomâ set is placed on the public lawn and residents of Buttershaw are filmed watching and interacting with the play, in the Yorkshire tradition of immersive promenade theater (the Mystery plays and Passion plays put on by guildsmen and womenâa tradition harking back to a more golden, industrial age). Barnard recalled in an interview that when the cameras stopped rolling, residents clambered onto the set, desperate to join in with the action. Mixed in with the audience we also see some of the actors who are lip-synching the protagonists depicted in the play. The overall effect is of an immaculate cohesion, creating a sort of heterogeneous âcompany of actorsâ and mirroring the lives of the Dunbar family by blurring the confines of the real and the constructed.
Past evidence of these types of constructs indicates that they shouldnât work. A film such as Oliver Stoneâs JFK, for example, risks degrading the strength and credibility of Stoneâs thesis on the Kennedy assassination simply by juxtaposing a fake Kennedy and a fake Jack Ruby with familiar archive footage of the real versions, then asking us to buy the fake version. Perhaps the success of The Arborâs espousal of these techniques lies not just in the filmâs deliberate theatricality but also in its intentions: it doesnât strive to correct injustice, but rather to amplify the real voices of Dunbarâs motherless children as they tell the stories of life on the Braffington Arbor. Just as Rouch and his colleagues at the Cahiers du cinĂ©ma believed that a filmâs moral position should be in its form and style, not in any underlying social message in its narrative, so Clio Barnard (at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ken Loach and, ironically, Allan Clarke) is not interested in philosophy or politics, but peopleâjust as Dunbar was, in her plays. Given the hardship and injustice on display, there will be those who see a form of moral and intellectual cowardice in Barnardâs objective, nonjudgmental, approach to the material, yet a film such as The Arbor can achieve much by its purposefully cinematic representation of these untold stories, without polarizing its audience, instead liberating them to their own, now powerfully informed conclusions.
And what of these stories that the residents of The Arbor have to tell? To elaborate too much here would reduce the experience, but suffice it to say theyâre both remarkable (Dunbarâs discovery by The Royal Courtâs Max Stafford-Clark and his mentoring of this abused and alcoholic teenage mother of three with barely time to write) and at the same time terrifyingly quotidian (the abuse, drug addiction and prostitution of Andreaâs mixed-race daughter, Lorraine, and the blame she places at her motherâs feet for neglecting her). Some of the material is unremittingly bleak and would surely be unpalatable were it not for the dazzling invention and artistic honesty of the storytelling. Witness the opening shots of the dogs in the long grass, the placing of actors in a theater audience, each expressing their own views of a single event in turn (despite the interviews having been conducted weeks apart) and the devastatingly slow fade to black at the filmâs most harrowing revelation. Barnard is a real artist at work. So, rather than be appalled, the viewer almost feels privileged to have been allowed to witness stories that would by most standards of taste have gone untold (or at best been badly sanitized by a TV special). Where one might otherwise have seen only degradation and despair on the Arbor, Barnard (like Dunbar) sees life in all its facets. Dunbarâs reaction to her own predicament was in the subversive wit of her playsâThe Arborâs creative energy is a remarkable testament to its prodigious subject: âvitalâ in every imaginable senseâanimated, indispensable, and life-sustaining.