Documentaries often toy with the conventions of non-fiction storytelling to the detriment of their content, but Clio Barnard’s innovative “The Arbor” provides a welcome exception to the norm. Tracking the experiences of British playwright Andrea Dunbar and her children, Barnard uses actors to lip-sync the words of their real life counterparts, creating an unexpectedly engaging narrative device.
Dunbar, whose fleeting existence ended in 1990 at the age of 29, lived in the gritty Manchester neighborhood that provides both the movie and her first play with their titles. She spent her days surrounded by misery: Drugs, drunkenness and teen pregnancy defined her world, as evidenced by her dreary oeuvre. Rather than merely relying on the memories of the late Dunbar’s acquaintances or trying to recreate the period, Barnard succeeds at doing both.
Nevertheless, it takes time for the approach to settle in. The early scenes of “The Arbor” serve as an adjustment period to its unique construction. A title card explains the trick of the movie’s production, drawing attention to the way the actors seem to blurt out their recollections as if literally vomiting up the past.
The disorienting effect of the lip-syncing becomes exacerbated as Barnard surrealistically positions her subjects within their own descriptions of the past in a visually immersive opening sequence: Dunbar’s two daughters from separate relationships, Lisa and Lorraine, remember setting fire to their bedroom as children while their alcoholic mother remained passed out in another room. In a powerful moment of advanced scenic arrangement, the two women — portrayed by grown actresses Manjinder Verk and Christine Bottomley — gravely stare into the camera, monotonously discussing the incident as flames ignite on the bed behind them. The resulting eeriness combines identification with the characters and a Brechtian removal from them, establishing the mystery of the director’s intent.
Over time, however, Barnard’s motive comes into sharp focus. Combining the authenticity of the interviews with various constructed elements, “The Arbor” inhabits reality while simultaneously mimicking it, much like Dunbar’s actual plays. Barnard tracks Dunbar’s brief playwriting career, troubled relationships and eventual death in a pub, situating it all within the grungy backdrop of the housing project that fueled her demise. The sins of the mother are visited upon her children, particularly the part-Pakistani Lorraine, whose addictive tendencies lead her through abusive relationships and jail time. Barnard also includes reenactments of scenes from Dunbar’s highly autobiographical “The Arbor” (which she wrote at age 15), staging scenes in the neighborhood streets as an immersive mirror effect that comments on the drama while the interviewees explain it.
While Dunbar’s best known play is 1982’s “Rita, Sue and Bob Too!,” which Alan Clarke adapted for the big screen in 1986, “The Arbor” offers the greatest analysis of her own fragile upbringing. Handwritten in green ink, as a Royal Court Theatre director recalls, the play follows a pregnant teenager unwilling to get an abortion and coping with her father’s bouts of drunken rage. In Barnard’s “The Arbor,” these scenes develop a powerful edge as Dunbar’s relatives and neighbors confirm their veracity.
The cumulative impact of “The Arbor” is one of claustrophobia; at times, the endlessly downbeat adventures of Dunbar and her offspring grow almost unbearably morose. There’s no escape because nobody has the capacity for it. “I don’t think you ever remember the good stuff,” Lisa sighs. Her despair speaks to the impact of trauma on collective memory, turning “The Arbor” into a document of grief.
In recent years, filmmakers have attempted many experimental routes to surpassing the basic expectations of the non-fiction form. “Chicago 10” and “Waltz with Bashir” used animation to enliven their interviewees’ words, but Barnard’s format harkens back to the reconstruction methodology of Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line.” In fact, both function as analyses of crime scenes. Morris dealt with a literal murder, while Barnard seeks the assailant responsible for a handful of wasted lives, placing the blame on the neighborhood in question.
Even Dunbar’s emotionally withered children refuse to blame their single parent. “I won’t ever use my mom as an excuse,” Lisa says. Tracking the adolescent suffering of both Andrea and Lorraine, Barnard focuses on their shared socio-economic status, taking cues from the observant playwright’s body of work. Driven by an overarching desire to represent Dunbar’s life, “The Arbor” is consequently haunted by it.