Vital Signs
By Julien Allen

The Arbor
Dir. Clio Barnard, U.K., Strand Releasing

If it were not for the playwright Andrea Dunbar—whose artistic career lasted from when she was 15 (she wrote her first play The Arbor for a school project, later picked up by London’s Royal Court Theatre) to her death at 29 when she suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on the floor of her local pub—then the Buttershaw Estate, a housing project on the outskirts of Bradford, West Yorkshire, would merely be an unremarkable vestige of Thatcher’s Britain. There are hundreds like it scattered across northern industrial towns since the decline of Britain’s mining, manufacturing and textile industries. Instead, thanks to Dunbar’s plays (in particular the ribald comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too, filmed in 1986 by Allan Clarke) the estate which was her home and is also the backdrop to Clio Barnard’s film of Dunbar’s life, The Arbor, has become a vivid living landscape in its own right—one that compels the viewer to look beyond the dingy brickwork and overgrown grass, and discover bit by bit the nature and extent of the bubbling human turmoil within its ramshackle walls. The lives of the inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estate feature throughout Dunbar’s plays, yet none of the injustice of their disenfranchised lives is decried and nor are any solutions proposed—the value of her work is to persuade the audience to venture inside a place their every instinct would ordinarily compel them to pass by, and to listen to voices they would otherwise ignore.

The Arbor tells the story of Andrea Dunbar, but also of the lives of her children after her death. As a starting point it provides a companion piece to Dunbar’s work, but it ultimately achieves much more. It is a unique experiment in film, blending street theater, archive documentary footage, newsreels, and, most controversially of all, the lip synching of audio interviews with Dunbar’s family, by actors, filmed in representational form as if they were speaking the very words to camera. Originally devised from a desire to protect Dunbar’s daughter, Lorraine, who did not want to appear on film, this last technique—whose closest predecessor might be Aardman Animations’ short film Creature Comforts, in which plasticine animals vocalize the recorded conversation of “ordinary people” to comic effect—is introduced before the titles and is without question the film’s biggest gamble.

The risk is both moral (one’s immediate reaction might be that the film seems to be flaunting its dishonesty) and artistic (some of the “reconstructed footage” at times seems close to the look of a public service announcement, warning of the perils of drink-driving or unprotected sex), but it ultimately pays off quite spectacularly, partly through Barnard’s ingenious and sensitive use of juxtaposition, but mostly due to the loyalty she shows to the sound recordings around which the film is constructed. The camerawork (elegant always, and at times achingly beautiful), acting (restrained), and editing (exquisitely judged) all submit to the primacy of the unrehearsed, raw, often devastating snatches of exposition that came from the mouths of the real protagonists: Dunbar’s sisters, children, and their foster parents—the inhabitants of the Buttershaw Estate’s ‘toughest’ street, the Braffington Arbor.

Despite this “fakery,” we end up a long way from the Catfish/I’m Still Here debate about the ethics and veracity of a number of current documentaries because the director is resolutely honest with the audience, making the viewer wholly complicit in the inescapable artifice of nonfiction films and underlining the impossibility of representing factual truth via a camera and an editing suite. In this sense it serves as a valuable critique of the documentary form and perhaps a warning against studios’ growing appetite for it.

What should be confusing and distracting in The Arbor (the multiplicity of forms) actually becomes part of a surprisingly cohesive experience, reminiscent of experimental theatre. The Tricycle in London has for the past decade been a leading exponent of “verbatim theater,” which dramatizes court transcripts and interviews without changing a single word of text. This was a clear influence on Barnard, who had seen the Royal Court’s verbatim play A State Affair, based on transcripts of interviews with Dunbar’s family in 2000, and she takes it a step further with the use of actual recordings instead of transcripts. So for example, in The Arbor we see the adult actor playing Lorraine Dunbar lip-synching a childhood memory about a fire in her bedroom, filmed in the bedroom itself with the fire starting behind her—a sort of double displacement (she isn’t really there and it isn’t really her, but it is her voice we hear); later we see the actor playing Lorraine in prison, watching newsreel footage on a television set of the real Andrea holding the real Lorraine in her arms, whilst the actress lip-synchs to Lorraine’s real commentary about that very same footage. We assume Lorraine herself was also in prison when the audio material was recorded, but have no way of knowing—meanwhile we recognize on the newsreel other characters who are represented by actors in The Arbor.

It’s fascinating, in an almost childlike way, to make the visual connections (not so far afield from the thrilling credits sequence of the Farrelly Brothers’ Shallow Hal, in which we see photographs of every single person credited—key grips, clapper loaders and all), but more than this primal curiosity, there is a very deliberate sense of distancing between the words and images, which serves both to elevate the real protagonists and shield them from exploitation, while simultaneously intensifying the absolutism of the words themselves as the only tangible “truth” in the film. Barnard has found in this technique a form of truth that seems to elude the vast army of documentary makers at work today. Unlike Tricycle’s verbatim productions, which include the Iraq Enquiry and court transcripts of miscarriages of justice, there is no pretense that the film will trumpet the truth of what happened, nor indeed that the protagonists of The Arbor necessarily speak the truth—in fact they are often violently at odds with one another—yet truth resides very palpably behind the words they use to express how they feel, their regrets and aspirations, their own accounts (personally slanted) of the events that brought them together and tore them apart. The film may bring to mind Errol Morris’s 1978 doc Gates of Heaven in the canonization of the interview process, but we are actually closer to Jean Rouch’s seminal Chronicle of a Summer, as Barnard dismisses any attempt to uncover facts, instead engaging her protagonists on a subjective level, allowing them to speak without cross-examination and thereby disclosing an underlying human truth, undoubtedly much more ethereal but no less powerful, of the reality of these people’s day-to-day existence and the spiral of despair to which they seem inextricably locked.

Dunbar herself died before the interviews were conducted, so Barnard turns to her autobiographical first play, The Arbor, to tell her story. A small company of actors (including local actress Natalie Gavin, playing Andrea) stage excerpts from the play outdoors, directly on the Braffington Arbor. A makeshift “front room” set is placed on the public lawn and residents of Buttershaw are filmed watching and interacting with the play, in the Yorkshire tradition of immersive promenade theater (the Mystery plays and Passion plays put on by guildsmen and women—a tradition harking back to a more golden, industrial age). Barnard recalled in an interview that when the cameras stopped rolling, residents clambered onto the set, desperate to join in with the action. Mixed in with the audience we also see some of the actors who are lip-synching the protagonists depicted in the play. The overall effect is of an immaculate cohesion, creating a sort of heterogeneous “company of actors” and mirroring the lives of the Dunbar family by blurring the confines of the real and the constructed.

Past evidence of these types of constructs indicates that they shouldn’t work. A film such as Oliver Stone’s JFK, for example, risks degrading the strength and credibility of Stone’s thesis on the Kennedy assassination simply by juxtaposing a fake Kennedy and a fake Jack Ruby with familiar archive footage of the real versions, then asking us to buy the fake version. Perhaps the success of The Arbor’s espousal of these techniques lies not just in the film’s deliberate theatricality but also in its intentions: it doesn’t strive to correct injustice, but rather to amplify the real voices of Dunbar’s motherless children as they tell the stories of life on the Braffington Arbor. Just as Rouch and his colleagues at the Cahiers du cinĂ©ma believed that a film’s moral position should be in its form and style, not in any underlying social message in its narrative, so Clio Barnard (at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ken Loach and, ironically, Allan Clarke) is not interested in philosophy or politics, but people—just as Dunbar was, in her plays. Given the hardship and injustice on display, there will be those who see a form of moral and intellectual cowardice in Barnard’s objective, nonjudgmental, approach to the material, yet a film such as The Arbor can achieve much by its purposefully cinematic representation of these untold stories, without polarizing its audience, instead liberating them to their own, now powerfully informed conclusions.

And what of these stories that the residents of The Arbor have to tell? To elaborate too much here would reduce the experience, but suffice it to say they’re both remarkable (Dunbar’s discovery by The Royal Court’s Max Stafford-Clark and his mentoring of this abused and alcoholic teenage mother of three with barely time to write) and at the same time terrifyingly quotidian (the abuse, drug addiction and prostitution of Andrea’s mixed-race daughter, Lorraine, and the blame she places at her mother’s feet for neglecting her). Some of the material is unremittingly bleak and would surely be unpalatable were it not for the dazzling invention and artistic honesty of the storytelling. Witness the opening shots of the dogs in the long grass, the placing of actors in a theater audience, each expressing their own views of a single event in turn (despite the interviews having been conducted weeks apart) and the devastatingly slow fade to black at the film’s most harrowing revelation. Barnard is a real artist at work. So, rather than be appalled, the viewer almost feels privileged to have been allowed to witness stories that would by most standards of taste have gone untold (or at best been badly sanitized by a TV special). Where one might otherwise have seen only degradation and despair on the Arbor, Barnard (like Dunbar) sees life in all its facets. Dunbar’s reaction to her own predicament was in the subversive wit of her plays—The Arbor’s creative energy is a remarkable testament to its prodigious subject: “vital” in every imaginable sense—animated, indispensable, and life-sustaining.