I recently watched the 1987 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, because I’m a huge fan of director Alan Clarke and had somehow never got around to it, despite it possibly being his most successful film commercially. It’s billed as a comedy, but it feels of a piece with his other films, which often deal with the violence and degradation inherent in state-sponsored systems of control. The nominal plot involves two teenage girls in Bradford (to the north of England) having a fling with an older married man, but really it’s about the way that working class lives are affected by living on a vast council estate, socially engineered (it seems) to entrap its undervalued residents. While watching it, I flicked over to Wikipedia, as you do, to read up on the film’s background, and there came across the page for Andrea Dunbar, its screenwriter and author of the original plays on which the film was based. Even in the broad strokes of this short entry, it makes for unhappy reading. Dunbar died only a few years after the film, at the age of 29, while her heroin-addicted daughter Lorraine was later imprisoned at much the same age for causing the death of her baby. It’s these events which form the basis of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, an experimental blend of documentary and staged scenes.
The title is taken from Dunbar’s first play, itself a reference to the street on which she lived, Brafferton Arbor, on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford where both this documentary and the 1987 film were shot. Clarke’s film, as was his wont, opens with a long tracking shot around the estate, starting at its pub, the Beacon, where Dunbar later died. Barnard integrates some of these stylistic traits into her own work, recalling Clarke’s film with similar tracking shots, though most of the film has a sort of steely stillness to it, with clean unadorned frames (not unlike those of Errol Morris, who has his own stylised way with documentary material). The estate remains familiar almost 25 years on, although there are some signs of rebuilding and change to make it a little less unpleasant.
At the heart of the film’s method is oral testimony from those who knew Dunbar, primarily her family. But where a conventional documentary would use talking heads, this one recontextualises the interviewee’s actual words in the (lip-synched) mouths of actors arranged inside and outside their homes. The key voice turns out to be that of Dunbar’s mixed-race daughter Lorraine (acted here by Manjinder Virk), coming to terms with her mother, the upbringing she received, the sense of isolation she felt from her skin colour in such a predominantly white area, and the crime for which she was imprisoned. The other key structuring device is the staging of scenes from Dunbar’s plays in outdoor settings on the estate being silently watched by its residents, as a means of trying to get inside Dunbar’s own life from her perspective. The female protagonist of these plays (Natalie Gavin) is effectively a stand-in for Dunbar herself, and through her words we get a sense of how things were back in the late-70s and early-80s when she first started writing. Additionally, we get a little bit of archival video of interviews with Dunbar from the time.
There’s nothing in the content that sounds particularly groundbreaking, but the resulting film is a beautiful and thoughtful one about difficult lives, and the play of memory over the decades. Each of Dunbar’s three children has a different perspective on their upbringing and on Andrea’s legacy, and it’s perhaps fitting that it’s the theatrical setting where these stories all intersect (specifically, the restaging of a 2000 piece of verbatim theatre recounting some of the same events). It’s a testimony to voices that aren’t heard so much on the big screen, and its focus on the impoverished setting of their lives seems appropriate to a film made during a newly-resurgent Conservative government.
Director Clio Barnard; Cinematographer Ole Birkeland; Starring Manjinder Virk, Natalie Gavin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.