(Distributed by Strand Releasing, The Arbor is now available on DVD. It opened theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City on Wednesday, April 26, 2011. Visit the film’s page at UK Distributor Verve Pictures to learn more.)
British playwright Andrea Dunbar became an unexpected sensation at 15 years old when her bruising, confessional 1976 play The Arbor was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre. In telling Dunbar’s sad story (she died at 29 from a brain hemorrhage), Clio Barnard has used her background as a film and video installation artist to produce a bracingly original work of nonfiction. The Arbor is firmly experimental in execution: Barnard blends archival footage with scenes in which actors lip-synch over actual audio interviews with Dunbar’s surviving family members, as well as incorporating filmed recreations of Dunbar’s plays that take place on the Brafferton Arbor street where her short life was lived. Yet while these self-conscious techniques are initially jarring, Barnard’s bold aesthetic choice ultimately allows The Arbor to transcend traditional documentary borders and cast a haunting emotional spell.
In February of 2011, when Barnard was in New York City to present her film at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight series, I sat down with her to discuss how she managed to pull off such a remarkable feat.
Hammer to Nail: Your background is more experimental visual art than traditional narrative/documentary cinema, but I’m wondering where it begins with you. Are your ideas born first in your head or your gut? Or to put it a corny way, which comes first: the intellect or the instinct?
Clio Barnard: That’s funny ‘cause somebody else asked me this and I think definitely my instinct comes first, and then my head. And I’d say that’s true with this [The Arbor].
H2N: You took a bold, somewhat risky, stylistic approach with The Arbor. Would you say that Andrea Dunbar’s theatrical background inspired and influenced your decision to have characters not just addressing the camera directly, but by lip-synching the words of unseen interviewees? Or was this merely a gut feeling where you thought, “I haven’t seen that approach taken before in a film and it would be exciting to try that?”
CB: It was definitely connected to the fact that she was a playwright and also to this other play, A State Affair, that was a piece of verbatim theater that revisited Buttershaw, where Andrea was from, a decade after her death to see what had changed there. What interested me about verbatim theater was by using verbatim testimony it kind of aspires, I suppose, to be a kind of documentary theater, but that if you take those techniques and apply them to film, it kind of does the opposite and makes you aware of the illusion, and that seemed important to me. So, in the same way as in Andrea’s play The Arbor the girl addresses the audience directly and says, “This is a scene where the girl has found out she’s pregnant,” she says that to the audience, and reminds them that they’re watching the retelling of a true story. In a way, I see the lip-synching as doing the same thing. Or the performing of the play The Arbor on the street Brafferton Arbor, in a way making you aware that this is a fictional retelling of a true story. With documentary, often, as we all know, really, they have a similar narrative structure to a fiction film, and so I guess I think it’s worth pointing out as you’re watching it that you could do this kind of double thing—I hope—of engaging emotionally and also standing a little apart and understanding that it’s been shaped. And of course it’s not accurate ‘cause otherwise we’d have to sit there for 30 years! [both laugh]
H2N: Initially, this technique is very jarring, but at some point it casts a spell and you give in to it. For me, one of the most striking elements of the film is that it has the air of a raw Alan Clarke drama but it’s still hyper-aware of itself at the same time. It’s an experimental approach, but it has an emotional kitchen sink impact. At some point, your brain and body adjust to it and you’re being moved on both levels.
CB: In many ways, I didn’t really know how it would work out, ‘cause it was an experiment, although I’d used it before so I had an idea. Actually, other people didn’t. They were taking a bigger leap than I was in many ways, a bigger risk. But I think, upon reflection, and in terms of how people have responded, I think it makes a real difference that [the subjects] look you in the eye. If it was a more conventional talking head documentary, I guess they’d be looking slightly off camera, but I think the fact that they look you in the eye makes you listen in a different way, and I think that is maybe why you engage emotionally, even though simultaneously you’re kind of being thrown out of that. So you’re being distanced and drawn in. At the same time there’s a push-pull, and a balance, I hope, that is created by that. But I guess there was no way of knowing it would work…
H2N: Until you tried it! [both laugh] So it seems like with this particular film this is something that you audio lock before you picture lock, correct?
H2N: Removing the ambitious lip-synching visual aspect of the production, what was the process to get to an audio lock, from having the audio interviews themselves to a point where you had the audio timeline finished?
CB: In terms of doing the interviews, I think I probably would have carried on indefinitely. [both laugh] I worked with a really great producer, Tracy O’Riordan, who said, very gently but firmly, “Okay, I think it’s time to stop interviewing now. You’ve got to start cutting.” So, I think it was a six-week, possibly seven-week, audio edit. My original intention, or the way that I thought I would deal with the archival footage, was in the same way, that it would be audio only and I’d cast actors to lip-synch to the archive. But actually, the way that worked out when we did the audio cut was to include the visuals as well of the archive, and that changed things in a way.
The audio cut was a case of shaping these many hours of audio interviews and deciding what to leave out. Which was hard. I mean, it’s always hard, especially in a documentary. So it’s like this kind of strange hybrid of doing a documentary edit and writing a screenplay, an audio screenplay, and making it as tight as possible at that point, but making sure that we left—when I say ‘we’ I mean me and the editor Daniel Goddard—making sure that we left enough extra material to be able to shape things in the second part of the edit after we’d shot the images.
H2N: Another thing that really stood out for me was the way you bring the daughters’ personal narratives to life. They are clearly shaped by their own subjective memories of their childhoods, which could not be more diametrically opposed. But rather than taking sides as a viewer and playing that silly game of allegiance, this story unfolded for me on a different level. It felt like you had transcended that base “right vs. wrong” tendency and were fully honoring and respecting each subject’s perspective. But more surprisingly, it grew to a place where both of these personal narratives felt entirely true. To what extent were you conscious of that as opposed to simply trying to be a respectful documentarian and being as fair to each individual as possible?
CB: The scene where Lorraine and Lisa talk about the fire in the bedroom, which is right up at the front of the film, I can’t remember now who told me their version first! I can’t remember. I think it was Lisa, and then Lorraine. And I was very struck by how differently they remembered that event. They both went through the exact same thing but remembered it completely differently. For Lorraine, it was a memory of being neglected and being locked in the bedroom and of her mother’s failings, really. And for Lisa, she remembered that she had accidentally locked them in the room. For her, it was kind of a funny story. Actually, that is a scene that got moved right to the front in the second part of the edit.
H2N: I was going to say, that scene seemed like something you might have realized along the way as being a really important statement to make early on even if you hadn’t originally imagined it going there.
CB: It was, because in the cut before it was much further along and it got brought right to the front. That was really, really important. You know, if you spoke to Lisa about her mother and you spoke to Lorraine about her mother you could be speaking about a different woman. They remember her so differently. And I think what was great was when Lisa came to the premiere in London, she acknowledged in a way that her truth is the truth and Lorraine’s truth is also the truth. And that’s quite a big thing in a way for her to acknowledge, because they have just such a different opinion of Andrea and that has created a lot of conflict between them. So for her to acknowledge that that’s Lorraine’s truth is really significant, I think.
H2N: Does the rest of the family share that realization?
CB: I think that the family finds it really hard to hear what Lorraine says about Andrea. Andrea’s sisters find that really hard. And I think Lisa finds it really hard. So, in a way, for her to say that is a really big deal. Understandably, they find it really hard. I think trying to be empathetic to everybody was really important and very difficult to do within 90 minutes of screen time, and to try and find some kind of balance so that you empathize with Lorraine, as well as empathizing with Andrea. And I hope, I hope it manages to do that in some ways.
H2N: As I said, I think a viewer’s instinct is to “root for someone” and that didn’t happen for me here. At some point, I understood that the film was about something deeper and more complicated, how our personal histories are deeply subjective and how they can contradict with those closest to us but they are, in their own way, 100% honest and true. So it’s especially nice to hear that perhaps some pride was swallowed on the part of Lisa. Of course, this situation will probably never be all the way resolved.
CB: Yeah. Trying to shape the ending so that it was open was quite tricky, because obviously, I guess we’re left with the question: Well, is Lorraine gonna be okay? And we kind of want the answer. But real life doesn’t really work that way. And so it was quite difficult to find a way to close the film without giving a sense of false hope, I suppose.
H2N: That brings up something else I wanted to ask. The question of audience. Whether it’s all of your work or this film in particular, do you think about audience every step of the way? Or are you simply expressing yourself? That question of how to end this film directly relates to this, for you must realize that most viewers want things wrapped up in a neat little bow and you’re making a conscious effort to not do that.
CB: Definitely thinking about audience, and definitely thinking about how to communicate and what to communicate, and in a way the big challenge with this film was how to—our kind of mantra in the cutting room—was how to remain complex but not confusing. And it was a real challenge ‘cause there’s so many layers, I suppose, in the film. So, yeah, definitely thinking about audience. And even though the ending is quite open-ended, there is a moment in the film where Ann and Steve—Lorraine’s foster parents—break down, and they grieve… [SPOILER REMOVED!]… and I hope that’s the point for the audience when they really can grieve too. So I definitely am thinking about audience.
Having said that, I made the film without any expectation, which is very nice and it feels like a kind of luxury. [H2N laughs] I didn’t necessarily think that it would get a cinema release. So I was really pleased, of course, that it did. Also, I don’t think you ever know—as I’m sure you know this yourself as a filmmaker—how an audience is gonna respond. You just lose sight of that, especially towards the end of the process where you’re looking at the minutiae, the color grade or whatever it is. You kind of lose sight of it. And I’m very pleased that it does seem to be communicating.
H2N: Did you get eyes on it every step of the way? Trusted eyes? Or did you any general test screenings? Was your premiere, the first time you showed it to an audience, a real shock to the system?
CB: There was a team of us and we worked really well together, the producer and the man from Artangel who commissioned it, and there were people from the UK Film Council as well who were coming into the cutting room and I actually found that fantastically helpful. It was just really useful to have that feedback and be able to make these decisions about… what we had to do at the end, the editor Nick [Fenton] and I, was create space so that you had time to absorb what was being said and you had time to process. It was about pacing. And so it was incredibly helpful to get that feedback.
We had lots of different screenings with people. There was a point where we all invited a friend each [CB laughs] who knew nothing about it, because part of the problem was that everybody knew too much, so we had a screening where people came who knew nothing.
H2N: And were these film people or not film people?
CB: The person I chose was a film person but the producer’s friend wasn’t, so a mixture of people. But its first proper public screening, I guess, was at the Tribeca Film Festival, and that was unbelievably nerve-wracking. I shook all the way through! [H2N laughs] The only way I could stop shaking was if I looked… it had a shiny floor, so I looked at the reflection of the film in the floor and I stopped shaking. I found that unbelievably nerve-wracking.
H2N: I feel your pain! Along those lines, I’m curious about something else as a filmmaker. Within weeks, I’ve just had our first two festival appearances and I kind of feel over the film to some extent, like I’ve already made my peace with it. How do you maintain the stamina and enthusiasm to talk about your work months—and we’re closing in on a year from Tribeca now—after you’ve first presented it to the world? Or in this case, does the fact that the film is such a personal project help?
CB: Well, it’s a year since I finished it. We finished it in February last year, so it is a long time. There also was a gap between Tribeca and the UK release, and I did find it hard to move on from it, to let go of it, and I think it was partly because I couldn’t, because I knew that the release was coming up and I’d need to engage with it fully again. Partly because of my responsibility to the people who were generous enough to speak to me. So in a funny way I’ve had the opposite thing of not quite being able to let go and move on to the next thing, and I think I have been able to do that. But now I’m having to reengage again!
H2N: Has that been the pattern, with your installations or short films? Or is it because the stakes are higher here, in the sense of your responsibility to your subjects being more extreme in this case?
CB: I think this is different. Yeah, I think the stakes are higher and I got more involved. I’m still involved, on a personal level, with the people that I interviewed and have made genuine, real friendships that I want to keep going. But I think, necessarily, I will separate from the film, if not the people.
H2N: You said you didn’t know this was going to turn into a “theatrical movie.” Has it excited you and made you want to devote your full attention to making feature films that are shown in theaters? Or is it still a project-to-project basis and whatever you’re inspired by at the moment?
CB: I guess it’s project-to-project, but the next project is a fiction feature film.
H2N: Were there stirrings of that before making The Arbor or was the project born from this experience?
CB: It’s come out of The Arbor and it’s related to it, in that I’m back on Buttershaw working with people I got to know but there was no room for within The Arbor. So I’m not finished with the place The Arbor yet.
— Michael Tully