Location shots, real people, and actors are deployed in a seamless amalgam in this recollection of of the talented but short-lived alcoholic working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar, from Bradford, West Yorkshire. Filmmaker Clio Barnard first spent two years recording interviews with Dunbar’s family and friends. Then she staged actors lip-synching the interviews as monologues, sometimes in a group scene — a technique known as “verbatim theater” that arguably works more seamlessly because of Bernard’s use of filmed settings. Barnard also staged parts of one of Dunbar’s plays out near “The Arbor,” ther part of the Yorkshire housing estate where Dunbar grew up and of which her plays speak. This is also the name of Dunbar’s first play. Another one, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was made into a reportedly excellent film. After a while, thanks in part to the excellent editing of Ole Birekland, you don’t know who’s the real person and who’s an actor (because vintage footage of the people is there too). This creates a kind of Brechtian “Alienation Effect” that paradoxically makes it all more real and memorable. In the course of compensating mentally for shifts of format and perspective, you wind up projecting yourself into Andrea Dunbar’s world. The material may be downbeat, but its compulsively watchable.
It’s a tough trip. Dunbar grew up in the Butterfield Estates during the decline of the textile mills, writing her first play at fifteen. She was already experiencing the prevailing racism, alcoholism and domestic violence. Eventually, by the time she died at 29 of a cerebral hemorrhage, she’d had become a heavy drinker and had three children by three different fathers. The eldest, Lorraine, played here by the sad-eyed, insinuating Manjinder Virk, was a dark-skinned, pretty girl whose dad was of Pakistani origin. She was to write no plays, but otherwise would duplicate her mother’s unfortunate model of children by different fathers, drug addiction instead of alcoholism, and imprisonment for the death of a child through her extreme negligence.
Editing is a key factor here, but all elements are so smoothly handled you become unaware of the many layers and modes at work. Over-titles identifying the main speakers when the first appear also help to create the desired confusion. In news footage where the family is interviewed after Andrea’s first London success, her real dad bears a quite striking resemblance to the father in the staged play. At the play, many people, presumably current residents of the estates, stand around to watch — another way boundaries are broken. Ronnie Schieb calls this “a must-see entry in the ongoing evolution of cinematic formalism,” but this “formally inventive” and “socially revelatory” exploration, neither formal nor abstract in the playing out, never seems anything but real, down to the sometimes almost impenetrable accents of the recorded speakers whose voices flow through the scenes. Very good foreground and ambient sound contributes to the seamless effect, of course. Credit here to Dolby Digital sound designer Tim Barker and re-recording mixer Richard Davey.
There is a Rashomon-like aspect as one gradually watches Andreas’s story unfold from multiple sources, including the various fathers of her children, and the most personal moments come with Lorraine’s unfolding confessions. As Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote about the film last spring, Barnard’s “technique produces a hyperreal intensification of the pain in Dunbar’s work and in her life,” and this pain becomes most vivid as we realize that in Lorraine’s life Andrea’s tragedy “was replicated, almost genetically.” Bradshaw makes another good point: Dunbar’s story, and her success as a teenage playwright in Max Stafford-Clark’s Royal Court, challenges a lot of what we assume about gritty realist theatre or literature from the tough north,” because the plays are usually produced “by men whose gender privileges are reinforced by university.” They become stories of how they got out. But Dunbar never got out.
The Arbor, Barnard’s debut feature, got a raft of nominations at BAFTA and the London Critics Circle, and two actual awards, one at Sheffield’s documentary festival (Innovation Award) and the British Independent Film award for Best Achievement in Production. It’s not a cheerful watch, but it’s a very compelling one and a remarkable accomplishment by Clio Bernard — as well as by the principal actors, Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Neil Dudgeon, Monica Dolan, Danny Webb, Kathryn Pogson, Natalie Gavin, Jonathan Haynes, Jimi Mistry, George Costigan. Try as you may, you will not spot their lips out of sync.
Available in the UK on DVD, in the US The Arbor won Barnard a best new documentary filmmaker prize at 2010’s year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and is part of the April San Francisco International Film Festival and is scheduled for a theatrical release by Strand also in April 2011.
DIRECTOR: CLIO BARNARD
STARS: MANJINDER VIRK, CHRISTINE BOTTOMLEY, NEIL DUDGEON, MONICA DOLAN, DANNY WEBB
RUNTIME: 94 MIN