It’s the one-year anniversary of Clio Barnard’s big win for Best New Documentary filmmaker at TFF ’10 for her pseudo-doc The Arbor, and it’s celebrating with a New York release. The film will screen at Film Forum for a two-week engagement, so if you missed it at Tribeca last year, now’s your chance!
Since its TFF premiere and win, The Arbor has continued to reel in the awards, receiving 5 BIFA nominations, including a Best Debut Director win for Barnard; 3 nominations from the London Critics Circle Film Awards; a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer; and the Guardian (UK) First Film Award.
The Arbor tells the tragic story of Andrea Dunbar, a British playwright who found fame in her teens during the '80s with works such as Rita Sue and Bob Too (also a film), before her sudden death at age 29. Barnard spent two years conducting audio interviews with Dunbar's family, friends, and neighbors, and then filmed actors lip-synching the interviews, flawlessly interpreting every breath, tick, and nuance. The film focuses in particular on the playwright's troubled relationship with her daughter Lorraine, whom Barnard reintroduced to her mother's plays and private letters, prompting her to reflect on the parallels between their lives. I had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker at Film Forum in February.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?
Clio Barnard: Alan Clarke did a film adaptation of two of Andrea Dunbar’s plays: The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too, also called Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and it is somewhat of a cult film in the UK—people can quote lines from it. I think because I’m from that part of the world and that same generation, I have an affection for that film, but I didn’t really know Andrea’s plays because I ‘m not really a theater person; I’m much more of a film person. I picked up a copy of a play in a bookshop which had been printed with this piece of verbatim theater called A State Affair, which revisited Buttershaw [where Andrea was from] a decade after her plays had been written, and that was really the starting point for me. This idea that a film or play shapes an ending, but the place doesn’t end; I was really interested in the idea that you could go back and find something new and also see what had changed. By looking back over 30 years, you get a different perspective, and it enables a longer view of the original work.
Tribeca: The line between narrative and documentary films seems to be a fascination for you in many of your works.
Clio Barnard: I did a gallery installation that was concerned with this theme, and then I made a short called Dark Glass, which dealt with it as well.
Tribeca: And you shot Dark Glass on your mobile phone?
Clio Barnard: Yes, that short was about domestic photography and how we use it to make a record of something—but often we are making a choice about which photographs to delete and which to keep and what to leave out of the frame. We want pictures of happy as oppose to sad things, so that was why I used a mobile phone for that.
Also, the basis of it was a hypnosis session, and quite often I will record the audio first, verbatim, and then construct the visual around the audio. I did this in Dark Glass, and the actress I cast was really pleased because she thought, “Oh, you’re shooting this on a mobile phone, so you’ll put the actors first.” But then when she realized how tightly choreographed it had to be, she got really frustrated. Everybody had to hit their mark and be in the right place at the right time. We shot it on a mobile phone attached to a hockey stick, so it was sort of absurd. All the actors had to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Tribeca: And you returned to this tactic of audio choreography again in The Arbor, recording interview sessions with Andrea Dunbar’s friends and family, then having actors mouth the words to this dialogue.
Clio Barnard: That was a real challenge for the actors, and they did an amazing job, because they had to learn every breath and every pause and be completely accurate. What they talked about, especially Majinder Virk, who plays Lorraine, and Christine Bottomley, who plays Lisa, is that they had to very present—they couldn’t think ahead to the next line, because the minute they did, they had lost it. It’s a really specific discipline for a performer, and I was really lucky to find people who were so up for the challenge.
Tribeca: Had your actors mostly worked in theater prior to these roles?
Clio Barnard: All of them had done stage and film work.
Tribeca: How did you work with them to get them so in sync with the pre-recorded dialogue?
Clio Barnard: They really took that responsibility on themselves. I would give them audio files and they would listen to it over and over again. Manjinder put it on her iPod and would just listen to it constantly.
Tribeca: How long did you shoot for?
Clio Barnard: 16 days, and we shot in Andrea Dunbar’s hometown, known as “The Arbor.”
Tribeca: You shot actors performing scenes from Andrea’s plays in the middle of the village greens in the Arbor. Were those all locals standing by and watching?
Clio Barnard: Some of them were Andrea’s actual family members—her sisters and her brother and some of her extended family—and even though the shoot itself was very short, I spent 3 years getting to know them and the people of that town. I spent a lot of time on the Arbor, and had become very good friends with the locals, and found most of them to be incredibly open and welcoming. I really had good relationships with people there, so when it came to performing those scenes on the green, people were really into it. I’m not sure that necessarily comes across in the film, though, because people often ask me this question.
Tribeca: They definitely seem entertained by the performances, and it seems clear this story is one that hits close to home.
Clio Barnard: Yes and how big that audience was depended on when we were filming. If it was a Saturday and the kids were out of school, it would be a big crowd, but if it was 10am on a weekday morning, you wouldn’t get nearly as many. So whoever showed up, showed up, but it wasn’t rent-a-crowd or anything.
Tribeca: How involved were Lorraine and Lisa Dunbar with Manjinder and Christine, [the actresses who play them in the film]?
Clio Barnard: They didn’t really get involved with the actors, because the actors individually decided on their own approaches to the roles. If Manjinder has wanted to meet with Lorraine, I’m sure she would have been really open to that, but Marjinder didn’t want to because she wanted to interpret rather than mimic Lorraine. She was very careful about what she asked me, because I had spent a lot of time with Lorraine, and what you hear in the film is a fraction of what was recorded. She could have listened to all my other tapes and asked me lots of questions, but I think she didn’t want to overanalyze her; [instead, she wanted to play] what she understood of Lorraine from her words. I completely respected that decision on her part.
In terms of Christine, I remember this moment she had in the film when she was looking out of the window at the house where Anne and Steve lived—who became Lorraine’s foster parents but who really looked after all the kids when they were little. What Christine did in this moment, which I assume all of the actors ventured to do in this film, was try to figure out what might have been in their character’s mind’s eye in that particular moment. The interpretation is what’s going in the person’s head in between the words that come out. You have to figure out how someone else’s mind works and what the images are they might be seeing. I think that’s how they came up with their performances.
Tribeca: So do you think your decision to revisit Andrea’s life and works in this fashion is a further extension of her art, similar to that of A State Affair?
Clio Barnard: Definitely. I had used the technique of syncing actors with pre-recorded dialogue before, but I didn’t know about verbatim theater, and what provoked me was the fact that if you apply this technique to film, it makes you aware of the illusion, whereas in the theater, it’s more like documentary theater. So that idea of authenticity and this impossible aspiration that you can close the gap between representation and reality—that really interested me.
Tribeca: This film is an intriguing inversion of what we are seeing a lot in reality television these days—where people are trying to make the real even more real—whereas you openly brought actors into a documentary.
Clio Barnard: This whole notion of making the real more real, it’s impossible. I suppose I want to point that out.
Tribeca: Would you like to continue working in this experimental medium in the future?
Clio Barnard: I’m sure it will crop up again, but I don’t think I will use this same technique anytime soon. I have begun work on my next film, which is fiction, but there will probably be some documentary elements within it. It’s an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fairytale called The Selfish Giant, and it’s actually set in the Arbor, so I’ll be going back to Buttershaw for this film.
There were a bunch of boys between the age of 10 and 16 who would often ride their horses through the middle of our sets when we were filming, and unfortunately there was no room for that in The Arbor. But I really liked this group of boys, so I’m going to work with them on this next film.
Tribeca: So they aren’t actors?
Clio Barnard: No. We are doing workshops with them at the moment.
Tribeca: What would you like audiences to take away from The Arbor?
Clio Barnard: I’d like them to empathize with and be moved by this situation, and have some understanding of the effects of neglect and poverty over a long period of time.
Tribeca: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Clio Barnard: Find something that you become obsessive about and can’t stop thinking about, because that’s what really drove me on this film. I got very wrapped up in it. So get obsessed.
Tribeca: Well you’ve had wonderful success with the film since its world premiere at Tribeca!
Clio Barnard: I shook at the Tribeca premiere of the film last year! I was so nervous, but the response has been remarkable. I’m thrilled that it got a theatrical release in the UK and similarly thrilled that it will be showing here.
Tribeca: How did the audience respond to the film in the UK, particularly with Rita, Sue and Bob Too being such a beloved classic?
Clio Barnard: People were really moved by it. It’s not the easiest film, because not only is the subject matter harrowing, but the formal technique I employ is quite difficult, but people actually get very drawn into it. People my age enjoyed it—as well as people who hadn’t heard of Andrea Dunbar—and I’m so pleased.
Intrigued? Don’t miss The Arbor at Film Forum April 27 - May 10.
Watch the trailer: