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Tribeca '10 | Clio Barnard's "The Arbor" Defies Categorization

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire April 15, 2010 at 3:35AM

Director Clio Barnard turns the lens on late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, who is the focus of her unconventionally shot "The Arbor," screening in Tribeca's World Documentary Feature Competition.
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Director Clio Barnard turns the lens on late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, who is the focus of her unconventionally shot "The Arbor," screening in Tribeca's World Documentary Feature Competition.

A housing project in Northern England known as The Arbor left an indelible impression on playwright Andrea Dunbar. She grew up there, named her first play after it, and based all of her subsequent work there. Director Clio Barnard could have adapted Dunbar's play "The Arbor" for the screen or made a conventional documentary on her life, but instead she has crafted a captivating and truly unique work that transcends genre and defies categorization.

After spending two years conducting audio interviews with Dunbar's family, friends, and neighbors, Barnard filmed actors lip-synching the interviews, flawlessly interpreting every breath, tick, and nuance. Barnard's film focuses in particular on the playwright's troubled relationship with her daughter Lorraine. Dunbar died tragically in 1990 at age 29; Barnard connects with Lorraine - now age 29 herself - to reintroduce her to her mother's plays and private letters, prompting her to reflect on the parallels between their lives. Interwoven with these interviews are staged scenes of Dunbar's play filmed on the street where she lived. Barnard seamlessly stitches together these disparate but innovative elements, matching Dunbar's unconventional life with a befittingly unconventional film. [Synopsis provided by the Tribeca Film Festival]

"The Arbor"
World Documentary Feature Competition
World Premiere
Director: Clio Barnard
Primary Cast: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Monica Dolan, Neil Dudgeon, Danny Webb, Jimi Mistry
Producer: Tracy O'Riordan
Editors: Nick Fenton, Daniel Goddard
Director of Photography: Ole Birkeland
Executive Producer: Michael Morris
Casting Director: Amy Hubbard
Sound Designer: Tim Barker
90 min., U.K.

[Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.]

Director Clio Barnard on how her time spent at art school lead her to filmmaking and inspiration for "The Arbor"...

I began working with film while at art school, shooting with a hand wound 16mm Bolex, developing and processing the 100ft black and white spools myself, editing on a Steenbeck - laborious but utterly magical. I was seduced and film became a big part of my life. My recent work has explored the relationship between documentary and fiction film language. I have made gallery installations and single screen works. "The Arbor" is my first theatrical feature length film.

The cult film, "Rita Sue and Bob Too" (1987), which is an adaptation of two of Andrea Dunbar's plays, is closely associated with Bradford, a city in the North of England which has struggled with high unemployment and racial tension since the collapse of the textile industry in the 80's. I grew up near Bradford and am the same generation as Andrea Dunbar so the film and the central characters felt very familiar.

One day in a bookshop, I picked up a copy of Dunbar's original play, "Rita Sue and Bob Too," which had been re-printed with Robin Soan's "A State Affair," a play I knew nothing about; a verbatim play which revisited Buttershaw, the estate (Housing Project) where Andrea Dunbar lived and where her plays are set, and where she died at the age of 29. This inspired me to make a third work revisiting the estate and reflecting on the previous representations over the last 30 years.

Lorraine Dunbar, Andrea Dunbar's eldest daughter, had been interviewed for "A State Affair" when she was 18 and hers are the closing words of the play and link back to Andrea’s work. "A State Affair" is about how heroin wrecked lives on Buttershaw in the 90's and at the time Lorraine herself was a heroin addict. What I didn't know when I set out make the film was that Lorraine had ultimately failed to stay off heroin and when I met up with her, she was in prison awaiting trial accused of manslaughter.

As part of researching the story, I had tracked down a documentary from 1980 in which an 18-year-old Andrea makes a small understated expression of love for Lorraine, which I found profoundly moving in the light of knowing about Lorraine’s current tragic circumstances. And I knew that this was to be the likely ending of the film.

From the outset I wanted to use a formal technique in which actors lip-synched to the voices of the interviewees. I wanted to draw attention to the gap between reality and representation - to draw attention to the fact that documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones.

And on the biggest challenge she faced...

Dealing with the huge responsibility that comes with telling a true story.

Barnard on what she hopes Tribeca audiences will take away following the world premiere...

I hope I have told a moving story which is meaningful to anyone who is or has been part of a family, meaningful to anyone who has struggled to come to terms with
mistakes they may have made in their past, which provokes compassionate thought and reflection.

Barnard on her inspirations...

Errol Morris's and Jean Rouch's philosophy and practice of documentary filmmaking have definitely been an influence; that part of the responsibility of making documentaries is to make an audience aware that it is a construct. I'm a big admirer of Alan Clarke, who directed "Rita Sue and Bob Too" - but his most influential film for me, is "Road."

And on her future projects...

An installation; a companion piece to "The Arbor," which will be exhibited in London later this year. And I'm developing several feature films ideas.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews