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.
Director's Statement Collapse
As someone who grew up near Bradford and is roughly the same age as Andrea Dunbar, her play The Arbor and Alan Clark's film adaptation of her play Rita Sue and Bob Too seemed close to home. In 2000, I read Robin Soans' A State Affair, commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark. I was interested in Stafford-Clark's idea of revisiting the estate where Andrea grew up, a decade later to see what had changed by gathering first hand verbatim accounts of living below the poverty line, cut off from mainstream society. I chose to revisit the Buttershaw Estate another decade on from A State Affair to see what had changed there and to reflect on the previous representations of the estate.
Dunbar's was a powerful voice. Raw, witty, direct. She wrote her first play when she was just 15, a young woman from a northern council estate, from a large and infamous Buttershaw family, with an alcoholic and violent father, speaking candidly about her life. After her death, Dunbar's legacy continued in A State Affair, a play that looked at the devastating effects of cheap heroin on communities like Buttershaw in the '90s. In Andrea Dunbar's time heroin was a middle-class drug because it was expensive and difficult to get hold of. The working-class drugs were alcohol and glue. When heroin became cheap in the '90s, many teenagers on Buttershaw got into heroin and crack instead. So what is the situation a decade on, now that the '90s generation of drug users are parents themselves? Andrea Dunbar's eldest daughter, Lorraine, forms a direct connection between the three works. Her words end A State Affair.
Lorraine's story is central to The Arbor. Her two-year-old son died from ingesting the heroin substitute methadone in 2004 and Lorraine was sent to prison for manslaughter. Lorraine was a prostitute from the age of 17 and there is a clear link between poverty, prostitution, and drug addiction. It is important that Lorraine's story is heard, that some understanding of the complexity of her situation and the situation of many others can emerge from The Arbor.
Andrea's plays make it possible to take the long view, jumping back to the 1980s while Lorraine describes her experiences up to the present day. The combination of Andrea and Lorraine's voices creates a unique opportunity to look across three decades and four generations, illuminating the long-term effects of deprivation on families and communities.
I've been told that Andrea had 'total recall,' that her autobiographical plays were written by remembering what was said, word for word. In The Arbor, the techniques of verbatim theatre, which were used in A State Affair, are applied to film with actors lip-synching to the 'audio screenplay' to deliberately draw attention to the gap between reality and representation. I want to question the way that the aesthetics of Direct Cinema have been adopted by both documentary and fiction filmmakers as a short hand for authenticity, particularly when representing the working class, drawing attention to the danger of making truth claims. As Errol Morris says, "Truth can't be guaranteed by style or expression, truth can't be guaranteed by anything."
Cast & Credits Collapse
Primary Cast Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Monica Dolan, Neil Dudgeon, Danny Webb, Jimi Mistry
Director Clio Barnard
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