FUTURES | “The Arbor” Director Clio Barnard Reinvents Andrea Dunbar

FUTURES | "The Arbor" Director Clio Barnard Reinvents Andrea Dunbar
FUTURES | "The Arbor" Director Clio Barnard Reinvents Andrea Dunbar

Age: 46
Hometown: Santa Barbara (but she grew up in the North of England)

Why She’s On Our Radar:The Arbor” is a remarkable new entry into Britain’s tradition of social realism. It portrays the life of the late Andrea Dunbar, a troubled playwright who wrote about her experiences in working-class Northern England. Barnard took hundreds of hours of tape recordings with Dunbar’s family and friends and hired actors to lip-sync them. The result is a stunning achievement that pushes the boundaries of form to explore the cyclical nature of addiction and self-destruction.

More About Her: In her own words: “I grew up on a farm in the North of England surrounded by fields and sheep –- it was very isolated — just me my brother, my sister and my dad. I went to a school on a council estate in the nearest town. The nearest cities were Leeds and Bradford. I had my first proper kiss at Bradford Ice Rink. (Not sure why I’m telling you this detail!) I went to art school in Leeds in the 80’s. I made a short film while I was at art school that was selected by Tilda Swinton for a touring exhibition. Since then I’ve made film works and installations for galleries as well as short films. ‘The Arbor’ is my first feature film.”

What’s Next: Barnard is developing several features. “I continue to be fascinated by the crossover between documentary and fiction,” she said. “The tension between representing the actual and the imagined and experimenting with the form in some way.”

indieWIRE Asks: What drew you to Andrea Dunbar’s story?

I didn’t really set out to make a film about Andrea Dunbar. I wanted to revisit the Buttershaw Estate, where she lived and where her plays are set, 20 years after her death and 10 years since “A State Affair” – a verbatim play written a decade after Andrea’s death which used edited verbatim testimony as the text of the play. I wanted to go back to Buttershaw another decade on and see what had changed again and reflect on previous representations. I knew that Andrea’s eldest daughter, Lorraine, would be important because of her powerful words at the end of “A State Affair.” It was she who led me back to Andrea.

How familiar were you with her before this project? Were you surprised at where the process led you?

I knew the film “Rita, Sue, and Bob Too!” and that she had died when she was very young. Yes, I was surprised by where the interview process led me. The decision to put Lorraine at the centre of the film came quite late on and her interview became the spine of the film. That isn’t what I had expected when I set out to make it.

What made you decide to take on this film in the unconventional manner you did? Was there ever an inclination to film it in a more strict narrative or documentary format?

I decided to use the lip-synch technique right at the very beginning. I see it as a way of reminding the audience they are watching and listening to the re-telling of a true story –- reminding an audience that documentaries are always mediated. The decision to perform Andrea’s play “The Arbor” on Brafferton Arbor came later when I realized the play related to Lorraine’s circumstances in the present. Once I had decided on these approaches, there was no turning back. I didn’t take a camera with me when I did the interviews, so it could never have been a conventional talking-head documentary. I could have adapted the play “The Arbor” for the screen –- but performing it on The Arbor Field (as it’s known) seemed to be much more in keeping with Andrea’s work.

The film has been warmly received in festivals around the world and through its release in the UK. What are your hopes for the film’s American release? Audiences here are less likely to be aware of Dunbar.

It is not an easy subject matter and the formal approach is challenging, so I had no idea how audiences and critics would respond. I’m very, very pleased with the response to the film, and so are all of the people involved in making it. I hope American audiences will like the film. It is about a mother and daughter, loss and grief, neglect and responsibility, so I hope that any audience will be able to respond to that even if you know nothing about Dunbar. It’s great that the film is playing in US –- I’m incredibly pleased about that and I am very curious about what the response will be.

“The Arbor” opens April 27th at New York’s Film Forum, and will expand nationwide thereafter.

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