The Arbor Review
Biopics are all the rage these days. As are filmic adaptations of plays. As are documentaries. But would you ever have thought a film that combines all three of these elements could work? Clio Barnard’s The Arbor has just won the awards for Best British Newcomer and Most Original Feature Debut at the BFI London Film Festival and earned several British Independent Film Award nominations including Best British Documentary and Achievement in Production.
The Arbor really is quite the technical achievement. The majority of the film features relatively unknown actors lip syncing to recorded interviews with Dunbar’s nearest and dearest, primarily with her two daughters, Lorraine and Lisa. Punctuated with archive footage of Dunbar and her family during her rise to fame as well as scenes from The Arbor acted out on the Brafferton Arbor watched by the locals (including some of Dunbar’s family who still live there), Barnard’s staged drama doc is about as authentic as you can get.
Despite being a documentary about Dunbar (her life, her career, her legacy), the main focus is on her eldest daughter, Lorraine, and how her mother and life on the estate shaped the person she grew up to be. If, like me, you didn’t know much about Dunbar prior to the film’s release, here’s a quick bio. Born and raised on a Bradford estate, Dunbar lived with her parents and seven brothers and sisters. She got into a relationship with a Pakistani man as a teenager and had a child with him. She later had two other children by different men. At the age of 15 she wrote a play, entitled The Arbor, for an English assignment. Three years later it premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre and she was commissioned to write a follow-up play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! When this was adapted for the big screen, Dunbar was subjected to threats from people on the Buttershaw estate due to the negative portrayal of its residents. She became an increasingly heavy drinker and at the age of 29 died of a brain haemorrhage in the pub which she often frequented.
Lorraine’s story is even more tragic than her mother’s – a life of drugs, prostitution, domestic violence and a manslaughter charge for the neglect of her son. The fact that the interviewees only had their voices recorded and didn’t have a camera in their faces gave them the freedom to talk openly about their experiences. It also gave Barnard the opportunity to dramatise the events, adding a new dimension to the harrowing tales of life on the Buttershaw estate.
The Arbor balances fact and fiction in a way that allows us to engage with the film’s subjects. In theory, the lip syncing shouldn’t work and using actors to portray such heart-rending circumstances would presumably distance the viewer from the events. It is thanks to Barnard’s abilities as a director and the skills of the sound and editing team that the film manages to work so well. Expect plenty more award nods in the coming months.