director Clio Barnard
THE ARBOR A
Great Britain (94 mi) 2010 d: Clio Barnard
She had a bit of a gob on her and she was hot-headed at times.
—Natalie Gavin (describing Andrea Dunbar)
—Natalie Gavin (describing Andrea Dunbar)
This is one film where it didn’t help knowing absolutely nothing going into the screening, because in format alone, this is a dizzying conception that defies convention and has the audience on their heels from the outset. Much like Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009), my initial reaction was thinking this is another unvarnished exploration of British miserablism, utterly downbeat, centering on life in the slums, where I was not fond of any of the characters presented onscreen, and in fact found much of the initial material somewhat loathsome, as they were introducing characters fast and furious like a Tolstoy novel, none of whom seemed to matter at all. By the opening twenty minutes or so, I was ready to throw my hands up in the air wondering what in hell was going on, as I wasn’t sure if I recalled correctly from the opening or even believed that the actors were actually lip-synching the original material. Most of the time characters are speaking directly into the camera, as if in an interview format, though each, as it turns out, is a recreation. Other times the cast is gathered on the front lawn and enact scenes from the play as neighbors watch from the street. I’m not sure when it clicks in, but at some point you stop fighting what you initially can’t comprehend and start appreciating what’s happening onscreen, as the film only grows more intimately compelling until the audience is completely riveted and even overwhelmed by the material.
Like a musicologist such as Béla Bartók, who went around his country recording various musical folk melodies, compiling 9200 in all by the way, playwright and local resident Andrea Dunbar grew up in the Buttershaw Estate housing project in Bradford, West Yorkshire in Northern England, living on the toughest street known as The Arbor, where for two years in her life in the 1970’s she collected audio interviews from friends, family, and local residents, shocking everyone when at 15 she wrote a heralded play known as The Arbor, an autobiographical account of her life growing up there, the supposed drug capital of Yorkshire, whose corrupt police force in the 1980’s was notoriously depicted in THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009). Dunbar wrote three plays, all shockingly detailed accounts of lost childhoods, depraved youth, underage sex, prostitution, drug abuse, wrenching violence, and racism, one of which was adapted into a movie, RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO in 1986. Buttershaw residents were outraged at how negatively their lives were portrayed, many denying their family members could ever stoop to such behavior, sending death threats to Dunbar who continued to live on the premises, but nothing materialized. Dunbar died in 1990 at a local pub of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29.
What’s initially so mysterious is the unique power of the language itself, wrapped in gutter talk, slang, and profanity, but also a profoundly uneducated street way of speaking, where even the subtitles make it hard to describe or comprehend. It’s not just an example of illiterate youth speaking, as it might first seem, but adult characters at times are equally incomprehensible. Over time, we start to identify with some of the central characters, including Andrea, the outspoken Natalie Gavin, and her two daughters, mixed blood Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), who is part Pakistani, and Pamela (Kathryn Pogson). Oftentimes the voices heard are the real voices from the interviews, while actors also fill in from time to time, especially during heated exchanges. Mixed in with characters speaking to the camera and artificially recreated scenes are actors sitting in chairs and reading their lines, as if reading a letter, as well as the use of fictionalized documentary style footage, also other archival materials, creating a stream-of-conscious blend of expression, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s radio drama Under Milkwood, a play initially read by actors sitting on stools. The presentation is so radically different than what viewers are used to that they may have a hard time realizing what they’re witnessing, but they’ll certainly pick up what’s essential. In my view it’s blurring or crossing the line to call this a documentary, even if the initial source material used is all true. I don’t really have an argument for why this wouldn’t qualify as a documentary except that it uses the power of the theatrical performances, some of which are sensationally powerful and worthy of an award nomination, especially Manjinder Virk as Lorraine, to heighten the blistering intensity of the film, which by the end is just phenomenal. This is unconventional filmmaking combining the dramatic power of language with a fierce new sense of theatricality, a major work brilliantly directed, using a dazzlingly inventive conceptual design to accentuate some of the most intimately personal and humane material to ever grace the screen.