Review: The Arbor
Directed by: Clio Barnard
Written by: n/a
Starring: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Monica Dolan, Neil Dudgeon, Danny Webb, Jimi Mistry, George Costigan, Natalie Gavin
Released: 2010 / Genre: Drama-Documentary / Country: UK / IMDB
Bradford, West Yorkshire. Two tragic lives. One that ended far too early at the age of 29, immortalised in work for stage and screen; the other, lacking the same sort of prowess for artistic endeavour, wishing she had suffered a similar fate. The two people in question: Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her eldest daughter Lorraine.
Debut filmmaker Clio Barnard brings their story of social alienation and familial dysfunction to the screen in a unique drama-documentary that mixes audio recordings with real life participants lip-synched by actors, theatrical performance, and archive footage. The film, which charts Andrea Dunbar’s short life through her children and closest relative’s recollections, also looks at the similarly difficult plight of her daughter. Lorraine, the eldest of Andrea’s three children and the product of Andrea’s relationship to a Pakistani man, suffered from ignorant insults as well as the often distant mothering instincts of her alcoholic mother.
If it all sounds like a bleak tale about a bleak Bradford neighbourhood, in many respects, it’s because it is. But it’s also a measured and expertly constructed celebration of a talented young woman. As a playwright, Andrea Dunbar was given an outlet for her very real heartache, her anger and her anguish. Her plays, as well as her feature film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, spoke about class division in late 1970s and 1980s Britain, the changing social plain, ethnic diversity, the breakdown of the family unit. It was current, it cut to the bone. That Lorraine was born in the middle of this cultural and personal crotch kick speaks volumes of her mother’s inner conflict as well reasoning, somewhat, her own downward spiral into drug addiction and prostitution.
Barnard’s often profound film might depict all the demons in the Dunbar’s closest but it does so to discover where the genius behind a brilliant playwright’s work originated. And crucially, how the consequences of that genius produced the turbulent existences of those children caught in the middle.
Like those that slipped into the poverty trap of Thatcher’s Britain – the sort of urban decay forgotten, or at least disregarded, by those sitting comfortably in affluent suburbia – Andrea Dunbar’s name, not her work, has fallen by the wayside. The film, that she adapted from her own theatre play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, is her most famous work, becoming a cult favourite in Britain. Released in 1986, it sits proudly next to other social dramas from ex-BBC veterans such as Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1984) and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). It is also reminiscent of British social realism (or angry young men films) of the 1960s like Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963). Just as the genre suggests by its name, social realism holds a mirror to what is actually going on in everyday lives. Dunbar once said that embellishment was pointless, that she effectively told it like it was. Her authentic, colloquial dialogue, matter-of-fact staging, and direct association to the neighbourhoods she grew up on make Dunbar’s work immediate and fresh-faced. Her choice of themes – divorce, family breakdown, alcoholism and domestic violence, promiscuity and sexual liberation, children and pregnancy, made her work relevant. That she also tackled racism and ethnic diversity added another dimension to her work.
“I want the audience to be aware of the gap between reality and representation, to give a distance so you think about the fact that documentary is constructed often in very similar way as a fiction might be constructed.” – The Arbor director Clio Barnard
The tragedy is that despite her relative success Andrea Dunbar could never find happiness. And that’s the emotional core Clio Barnard’s film clings to. Andrea grew up on the tough Buttershaw Estate in Bradford’s southern suburbs. There she lived with seven brothers and sisters, her mother, and perennially drunk father. The people in her life including her family and her friends would become central to her plays. She was discovered at the tender age of 18 when one of her plays written three years earlier for a school assignment (entitled The Arbor after Brafferton Arbor where she lived and grew up), was discovered by Royal Court Theatre director Max Stafford-Clark. Stafford-Clark helped Andrea develop the play and commissioned it for a theatre run in 1980. She won the Young Writers’ Festival shortly after, saw the play performed in New York, and was featured in a documentary by the BBC. From the success of The Arbor, Andrea was given the opportunity to write a follow-up, which became Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Filmmaker Alan Clarke adapted the play for the screen, releasing the film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too in 1986.
Both plays, and her lesser known 1986 play Shirley, are semi-autobiographical depictions of Dunbar’s life. The Arbor tells of a female protagonist’s teenage pregnancy, her relationship to a Pakistani boy who wants nothing to do with her or their unborn child, and the social exclusion and ignorant bigots that taunt her because of her personal life. It also speaks about the neighbourhood itself – there’s a sense of community and belonging but it’s tempered by the adverse effects of poverty and rampant crime in the area. Rita, Sue and Bob Too picks up on events as two similarly aged girls begin a joint affair with an affluent married man. Here Dunbar recognises the class divide, depicting the detached 4-bed home of the man against the burnt out cars and broken windows and doors of the housing blocks the girls live in. We also see Dunbar’s casual appreciation of sex, shown here much like a game played between friends. There is nothing romantic about it, it isn’t personal or private; it’s almost robotic, workmanlike, dispassionate.
But fame didn’t change Andrea. Nor did it help her. She remained living on the Buttershaw estate effectively living out the lives of her characters. Her final denouement could have formed the ending of one of her plays. She died aged 29 in the Bradford pub she frequented, collapsing of a brain haemorrhage. In the last few years of her life, having mothered three children to different partners, she had become disillusioned with writing and was hounded by some residents because they felt she had portrayed the area too negatively in her work. She developed a severe drinking problem which affected her ability to raise her children.
Lorraine, still bitter at her mother’s familial failings, says in Clio Barnard’s film: “’My mother had the audacity to drop down dead, five days before Christmas, and she hadn’t even bought us a single present.” It is this statement, and others like it, that led new filmmaker and artist Barnard to pursue Lorraine’s life alongside that of her mother’s in the film The Arbor. It provides a cyclical dynamic between Andrea Dunbar’s short but dramatic life, and that of her first child, Lorraine became a drug addict at a young age, worked at a brothel to fund her habit, and then came to media attention when convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment for the manslaughter of her two-year old baby. For her troubles, Lorraine blames her mother. Barnard comments, “When I met Lorraine, I was struck by her articulacy; her ability to communicate complex emotion in succinct terms. It led me to wonder whether she might have inherited her mother’s gift. Yet, as Andrea’s experience showed, genius can be a blessing and a curse. It was as if Andrea was condemned to tell her story.”
Barnard’s film begins with a hazy, out of focus view of long grass. Unleashed dogs scamper across the screen and begin playing with strewn rubbish. Then we see a pregnant woman enter a house and go to an upstairs bedroom. There she begins to lip-synch to the words of Andrea Dunbar’s younger daughter Lisa who recalls an event during childhood when she and sister Lorraine were locked in a bedroom with a fire raging out of control. Another actress appears and begins to mouth the words spoken by Lorraine. It becomes evident that both women recall the event slightly differently. Barnard’s reconstructed scene is an indication that truth is in the eye of the beholder. The narration, distanced by virtue of the actors lip-synching to the real life participants, is an interesting device that highlights documentary as a construct and not a factual document. This self-reflexive attitude Barnard displays is both the film’s most unique aspect and its defining emotive attraction.
This self-reflexive attitude Barnard displays is both the film’s most unique aspect and its defining emotive attraction.
Barnard explains, “I want the audience to be aware of the gap between reality and representation, to give a distance so you think about the fact that documentary is constructed often in very similar way as a fiction might be constructed. I wanted an audience to be able to engage emotionally with the subject matter as well as unpick the layers of representation.” Some have criticised the style, which isn’t new to works produced for the theatre, as awkward and distracting. Barnard says, “I wanted to maintain a sense of people speaking at one remove. Hopefully, it will remind the viewer that, however truthful a documentary attempts to be, it is always subject to the editorial decisions of the filmmaker.”
As daring as this device may be for cinema, Barnard goes further by recreating snippets of Andrea Dunbar’s plays in Brafferton Arbor itself. With local townsfolk within touching distance of the actors, the film portrays various scenes from The Arbor play. Like the recorded audio lip-synched by actors having an uncomfortably detached ambience that blurs the distinction between fact and narrated construct, the semi-autobiographical scenes in Andrea’s play depicted here offer a neat balance. The dramatised performance has a similar effect albeit from a conversely fictional setting. We get a glimpse of Andrea’s life through her imagination. It is also fitting that the playwright should get a voice in a film about her life even after death. It highlights how her work continues to live on and is still relevant more than 20 years since it was written.
Barnard wanted to pursue the film after watching Rita, Sue and Bob Too but didn’t realise how autobiographical Andrea’s writing was. At one point in the play The Arbor, which is recreated in the film, the protagonist names herself as Andrea Dunbar. But, Barnard only learned how closely these scenes mimicked Andrea’s own existence when interviewing her family for the film. On meeting Andrea’s sister Pamela it became clear that characters and events in her plays had occurred in real life. For example, according to Pamela, the character of Yousuf in The Arbor is a direct representation of Lorraine’s father.
The genesis for the project came from A State Affair, the brainchild of Max Stafford-Clark who wanted to go back to Bradford to see how the estate had changed since Andrea depicted it in her plays. A State Affair, produced in 2000, used recorded interviews to develop a narrative delivered by actors on stage verbatim. This device inspired Barnard to recreate it for the screen, returning ten years later to check on the lives of the people interviewed. It certainly works in film and though it is inherently detached it does manage to engage you as a viewer. Of course, Barnard expands the device through her outdoor theatre and some wonderful archive footage of Andrea.
Crucially, Lorraine’s downward spiral and resentment towards her mother added another dynamic to the film. She claims to have overheard her mother telling an acquaintance that she wished she’d never given birth to Lorraine, that she could not love her as much as her other children because she was mixed race. Barnard had to go to the prison in which Lorraine was incarcerated in order to record the interviews with her. Barnard says, “She agreed to meet me, providing she wouldn’t have to appear on camera. The story she told was hardly one I was expecting, and it led me to make quite a different film. I was worried how people might respond to hearing Lorraine’s criticisms of her mother. Yet we also hear the voice of her younger sister, Lisa, who insists: “I think Lorraine still misses her mother, she just has a mad way of showing it.””
“The dreams I had are finished. There was just one thing – as a kid, I always thought, one day I’ll be on the telly. I was, and after that, it was gone.”” – Andrea Dunbar
The Arbor is an engrossing and original film about two tragic lives. That it tells a saddening story that still finds some optimism within the tales of Andrea Dunbar’s family and friends, is also the defining quality of Andrea’s written work. She had an indomitable spirit that could rise above the unfortunate darkness that seemed to follow her around like a shadow. Although she did make mistakes in life, her spirit seems to have found its way to her children, particularly Lorraine. Andrea once said, selflessly, “There’s people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be. I just stumbled across this writing by accident, whereas other people haven’t had the opportunity to get out and do that.”
That her work is as prevalent today as it was when she wrote it tells us that we’ve either failed to progress as a society or that the unfortunate circumstances that she had to deal with are about to come full circle. Modestly, and with a tinge of sadness, she once said some time after becoming disillusioned with writing, “The dreams I had are finished. There was just one thing – as a kid, I always thought, one day I’ll be on the telly. I was, and after that, it was gone.” As it turns out she made it to the big screen too. And while she may not be writing anymore, through Clio Barnard’s film her voice and spirit are as loud as they ever were.
Review by Daniel Stephens
Screening courtesy of BAFTA/ Bradford Media Museum