Clio Barnard takes the documentary form and stands it on its head with The Arbor a look at playwright Andrea Dunbar and her family. Dunbar grew up a working class kid on an estate in Bradford, England. She was able to take her experiences of her life write a play while in her teens which was produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London. She had incredible, raw talent yet she struggled with drugs and alcohol, had terrible relationships with men and sadly died of a brain aneurysm before 30. It’s sad to think what she might have written had she lived.
Clio Barnard spoke with Women and Hollywood (by email) about the film which opens today at the Film Forum in NYC. Andrea’s film Rita, Sue and Bob Too is also being screened this weekend. Details here.
Women and Hollywood: How did you get the idea that you wanted to make a documentary about Andrea Dunbar’s life?
Clio Barnard: I didn’t set out to make a documentary about Andrea Dunbar’s life, I actually set out to make a film about The Buttershaw Estate in Bradford where Dunbar grew up and where all of her plays are set. I knew about her work through Alan Clark’s film adaptation of two of her plays, Rita Sue and Bob Too (1987). I came across A State Affair, a piece of verbatim theatre which revisited Buttershaw a decade after Andrea’s death to see what had changed there. I was interested in the idea that a play or a film has to shape an ending but that the place doesn’t end, so I wanted to go back to Buttershaw another decade on to see what had changed there and to reflect on the previous representations of Buttershaw. I knew that I wanted to interview Lorraine, Andrea’s eldest daughter, because her words that end A State Affair connect back to Andrea’s plays. It was Lorraine who led me back to Andrea and specifically to her play The Arbor and to the street where Andrea grew up, Brafferton Arbor. Realising that Yousaf in the play was Lorraine’s father was crucial.
WaH: The film almost feels like a play and is not like any documentary I have seen before. Why did you decide to structure it in the way you did?
CB: The decision to include extracts from Andrea’s play The Arbor came when I realised how important it was in understanding the circumstances into which Lorraine was born. The play addresses the difficulties of a mixed race relationship on a racist estate. The play is autobiographical and we see The Girl – who is essentially Andrea – protecting her unborn, mixed race child. This child is Lorraine.
The decision to have actors lip-synching to interviews was there from the very beginning. I had used the technique before in a short film I made in 1998. At that time I didn’t know about Verbatim Theatre, a technique where voices are gathered in interview and the edited interviews become the text of the play. It fascinated me that in the theatre the technique is a kind of documentary theatre, but if you apply the technique to film, rather than collapse the distance between reality and representation it draws your attention to the gap between the two, draws your attention to the illusion.
In her play The Arbor The Girl directly addresses the audience at the beginning of each scene. This reminds the audience they are watching the retelling of a true story and I see the lip-synching as having the same function. It is a reminder of how unstable the truth is. Lorraine’s truth about her mother Andrea is completely different from her sister Lisa’s truth about their mother Andrea. Though they are both talking about the same woman, the same experiences, their accounts are completely different.
WaH: Just wondering if there have been any issues from people in the documentary community about how you have pushed the envelope with the structure and form?
CB: I have found the documentary community to be very open to the film. It is a community which is completely engaged with the formal challenges and ideas around the crossover between documentary and fiction. Many festivals are already engaged with these ideas and set up to explore them and many filmmakers are exploring similar ideas. The film taps into debates that are as old as documentary itself.
WaH: What do you want people to learn about Andrea from the film?
CB: That she was as complex as the rest of us, that she had a unique talent and that against the odds her voice found an audience. That she was brave enough to write straight forwardly about difficult subjects like racism, abusive relationships and underage sex. She showed audiences in the 80’s that life on the margins is a struggle that the majority are blind to most of the time. By reviving her voice in 2010 and updating it through the testimony of her children I hope audiences are reminded of the struggles going on in the margins and our responsibilities to those communities.
WaH: What were the biggest challenges to making the film?
CB: Being trusted by the interviewees. That was a big responsibility.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
CB: If there is something that you can’t stop thinking about, which obsesses you then pursue it. Be inspired by other female writers/directors. (My inspirations were Andrea Dunbar, Penny Woolcock, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and more recently Debra Granik…..)
WaH: What are you working on now?
CB: A film adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fairy story, The Selfish Giant, set on Buttershaw.