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Clio Barnard's film The Arbor, though a true story, straddles the line between documentary and narrative. Using the unusual technique of actors lip-synching real-life interviews of the players in the story (it works much better than it sounds), the film breathes a powerful life into the deeply intimate stories and the various perpectives of the fascinating characters.
Though the story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar has captivated and saddened Britain for decades, her story will likely be new to American audiences; however, the threads of poverty, drug abuse, and racism will be all too familiar. The Arbor is a story of humanity, of a family torn apart by drug use, and of the powerful way artistic media can bring us together.
TribecaFilm.com: Tell us a little about The Arbor.
Clio Barnard: The Arbor is a film about 4 generations of one English family, and focuses on the relationship between British playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too) and her daughters. Dunbar wrote her first play when she was 15 years old, then died tragically when she was just 29. Her daughter Lorraine, now 29 herself, reflects on her own and her mother’s life. The film mixes archive footage, interviews and live performance to enable an imaginary conversation between mother and daughter to take place on screen.
TribecaFilm.com: What inspired you to tell this story?
CB: Lorraine Dunbar’s words at the end of a verbatim stage play called A State Affair. The play, written a decade after Andrea Dunbar’s death, revisits the Estate where Dunbar lived and where all her plays are set. It found a community devastated by cheap heroin.
“If I wrote a play, I’d do it about the Buttershaw Estate. It’d show some people getting their lives together with a lot of courage and determination. But it would show others going down a big steep hill, into a big black hole.”
TribecaFilm.com: I know you come from the region where the film takes place. What has been the reaction to the film there?
CB: The reaction has been good. I felt a huge responsibility in telling this story. At first, Pam and Kathy, Andrea’s sisters, found it difficult to hear some of Lorraine’s criticisms against Andrea. But ultimately they like the film. At the screening in Bradford there were applause and tears.
TribecaFilm.com: How did you find the actors? They were pretty amazing.
CB: I worked with a brilliant casting director called Amy Hubbard and met with lots of actors, which was an amazing experience. We also did a casting session in the local school where the film is set and found some great local talent that way.
TribecaFilm.com: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened while making the film?
CB: For lightning strike moments, I would say watching archive footage of Andrea aged 19 with her baby Lorraine. She makes an understated expression of her love for Lorraine, which was profoundly moving in light of what happened to them both subsequently.
The craziest thing may have been when we were filming in the middle of Buttershaw Estate (a housing project), surrounded by an audience of residents from the Estate and passers by, and I grabbed 4 drunk lads to play in a scene—it was a spur of the moment decision, and luckily it worked out.
TribecaFilm.com: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making The Arbor?
CB: Learning first hand that people live with incredible hardship.
TribecaFilm.com: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
CB: Find a story that needs to be told and be prepared for it to consume you.
TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
CB: Just one? That’s so very hard! If it could be lots, it’d be Pasolini, Fassbinder, Alan Clarke—but as well as a medium I’d need an interpreter… So perhaps, as he’s alive and I’m coming to New York, I’ll choose Martin Scorsese—I think I’d be able to ask a couple of questions, then sit back and listen. I like to listen. I’d like to listen to him talk about Mean Streets, Goodfellas, working with Thelma Schoonmaker, British and American Cinema.
TribecaFilm.com: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
CB: Even though it’s old news, I still recommend The Wire to people—because, though it’s hard to believe, some people still haven’t seen it.
TribecaFilm.com: What would your biopic be called?
CB: It’s Sound Up North, I Swear Down.
TribecaFilm.com: What makes The Arbor a Tribeca must-see?
CB: Because you will never have seen anything else quite like it.
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