By Don Simpson | January 2, 2012
Andrea Dunbar — the West Yorkshire author of three gritty social-realist plays who died in 1990 of a brain hemorrhage at the ripe young age of 29 — is the hapless subject of writer-director Clio Barnard’s latest genre-blurring film, The Arbor. The dialogue in The Arbor is derived directly from interviews conducted by Barnard of Dunbar’s surviving family, friends and children; while scenes from Dunbar’s intensely autobiographical plays are re-created by actors amongst the [marginally improved] streets of modern day Buttershaw Estate (dubbed “the Arbor”) with a live audience of the estate’s residents. The Arbor also cleverly sprinkles some choice selections from A State Affair (Robin Soans’ biographical play about Dunbar) as well as archival television interview footage with the real Dunbar and her family.
The Arbor brings emotionally heavy subjects such as child and domestic violence as well as racism to the forefront of the narrative — and let us just say that Dunbar’s penchant for alcoholism and poor life decisions does not bode well for her children, especially her half-Pakistani child, Lorraine (Manjinder Virk). Lorraine begins hiding from the reality of her own shitty existence at a very early age by immersing herself into a non-stop drug-induced haze; then she passes along her genetic history of neglect to her own children, increasing said neglect tenfold to morally troublesome limits.
With a unique blending of fact and fiction, The Arbor reconstructs the pain and struggle within Dunbar’s work and reveals the dour consequences her life choices had on her family. Barnard’s stylistic choice of having her actors confide in the camera (therefore the audience) is a purposeful cinematic devise to add more “hyper” to the hyper-reality by bringing more self-consciousness into the mix. Don Simpson recently caught up with True/False 2011 alumni Clio Barnard for a heady conversation about the film that appeared at the top of Don’s Favorite Documentary Films of 2011: The Arbor. (Note: The Arbor was released on DVD in 2011 by Strand Releasing.)
Don Simpson: How do you define documentary cinema?
Clio Barnard: Documentary has always been somewhere between something that is attempting to represent the actual or the real and something that is very constructed. That is partly what is so fascinating about it as a form. There is an unfulfillable aspiration to accurately represent the world, but it is always a mediation between the form and the apparatus and the subject.
DS: How do you classify The Arbor?
CB: I think it falls very deliberately between between documentary and fictional cinema. It has been shown in a lot of documentary film festivals; as a filmmaker I had to make a choice about that, and I did choose to enter it as a documentary film at film festivals. I think The Arbor has been very embraced in that context. There are other filmmakers doing similar things, and curators and programmers who are interested in that territory, so I think film festivals are a very fertile place for The Arbor to be.
DS: What role does the truth — specifically the cinematic truth — plays within The Arbor?
CB: I hope The Arbor is able to show how unstable it is, and how subjective the idea of truth is; how Lorraine’s truth is very different from Lisa’s truth about their mother. I hope the film reminds the audience of that. Andrea Dunbar’s truth in her plays was a fictional re-imagining of the facts of her own life. I hope that is what The Arbor points out. I love [Akira Kurosawa’s] Rashomon, I think that film examines the idea of the unstable truth in the same way. The Arbor opens with a sequence where Lorraine and Lisa both remember the same event — a fire in the bedroom — and they both remember it completely differently. Lorraine remembers that she set the bedroom on fire and she did it because their mother had deliberately locked them inside the bedroom. Lisa remembers that she accidentally locked them in the bedroom. When they talk about their mother, they could be talking about a completely different woman. I think it vital to remember that memory shifts all of the time. Even within Lisa’s memory, she might talk about it this way today and remember it a completely different way tomorrow. It is important to be vigilant about that and bear that in mind.
DS: It might be subconscious, but Lorraine and Lisa seem to have two very different agendas in terms of their memories…
CB: I think that is true and it is very complex as to why one would remember something one way and the other would remember the same thing differently. We all do that. I know I do that with my siblings, we all remember things differently. It is all very complex: Why you would remember one thing and not another? What do you internalize about your childhood? What do you choose to edit out?
DS: What attracted you to work on The Arbor?
CB: The first thing that drew me in was Dunbar’s film [directed by Alan Clarke] Rita, Sue and Bob Too! which I sort of grew up with. I grew up in that part of the world and I am the same generation as Dunbar. Then I read the play A State Affair [by Robin Soans] that uses the technique of verbatim theater, and the idea of returning to the same place, and the idea that a film or a play shapes an ending but the place and the family continue on. You have to end the film or the play to create its shape, but real life is not really like that. The central spine of the story being about Andrea and Lorraine came further down the line. I knew that I wanted to speak to Lorraine because of her words at the end of A State Affair, and the way she looked back to her mother’s work. I did not know what had happened to Harris, her son, and I did not know how autobiographical Dunbar’s play The Arbor really was; knowing what Lorraine’s situation was in the present and understanding that the Yusuf character from Dunbar’s play was Lorraine’s father and really the play was about the difficulties of that relationship in Buttershaw. There seems to be a very strong connection between the present and the past.
DS: At what point did the various different cinematic devices that you use to expose the artifice of cinematic truth become part of this project?
CB: The lip-syncing was there from the very start. A State Affair used verbatim theater, where the writers and the actors go out and gather testimonies from the real people, then the actors speak the words of the interviewees verbatim. It is a very unique kind of theater, documentary theater; I was interested in the concept that if you apply that to film it would do the opposite, drawing your attention to the artifice. That is how I wanted to do the film from the very beginning. The on location reenactment of the play [on Brafferton Arbor] came much later. It was not until I met Dunbar’s sister Pamela that I realized how autobiographical [Dunbar’s play] The Arbor was: Dunbar’s brother really had died at age 11; Yusuf and Andrea really had moved out that night; Dunbar’s eldest brother David was incredibly racist. All of it were things that had happened in Dunbar’s life, so performing Dunbar’s play on Brafferton Arbor seemed like the right thing to do.
DS: When did the shape of the narrative fall into place?
CB: I spent two years gathering the interviews, but it was just audio, I did not take a camera. Then I worked with an editor and edited what we called an audio screenplay. We also edited excerpts from the play that initially the editor and I read in the edit suite, and cut those into the interviews. We also had the archival footage. The shape that we created from the audio became the basis. Then I storyboarded the images for the lip-syncing. Because of budget restraints we had a very short shoot, it was about 16 days, and we shot all of the lip-syncing and the excepts from the play. Due to those restrictions on time, I had to be as exact as possible about which bits of Dunbar’s play were going to be in the final version of the film. After we shot all of the images, we went back into the editing room and the structure changed again. When we did the audio edit, the structure was different — you understood what happened to Harris at the beginning and then you learn how that came about. But when we did the picture edit, the structure changed to become more linear. Certain things had to come out. We purposely did the audio edit a bit longer than we needed, but not too much that we did not shoot what we really needed to shoot.