11 December 2010

Clio Barnard's The Arbor, and Andrea Dunbar, from the Buttershaw Estate, Bradford, West Yorkshire

The Arbor (2010) is a documentary about the life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, with the state of Thatcherite northern England in the 1980s as a backcloth. Or is it more about the aftermath, the heritage of Dunbar, both artistic and personal? Certainly it's one of the best films of the year, although don't expect it to win any Oscars: this is definitely arthouse only.

Andrea Dunbar was born in Bradford in 1961, and died there in 1990 at the age of 29. She wrote just three plays: The Arbor (1980), Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982), and Shirley (1985), the first being performed at the Royal Court Theatre when she was 19, and had never even been to a theatre before. She initially sent director Max Stafford-Clark her first manuscript, written in green biro in a school exercise book, and the theatre commissioned the second play, on which a film of the same name was based and released to great success in 1986. Rita, Sue and Bob Too concerns a married man who has simultaneous relationships with babysitters Rita and Sue from the (then) sink estate Buttershaw, Bradford, Yorkshire, who are half his age, and who take turns to have sex with him in his car. His wife finds out and leaves him, Rita moves in with him and gets pregnant, Sue unsuccessfully moves in with a Pakistani, but in the end they become a threesome again.

The problem is that this is not the play that Dunbar wrote, and she was unhappy with the scriptwriters who were brought in to make this a much more upbeat version of her original play. Another problem is that some members of the Buttershaw estate were unhappy about how it had been depicted, although Dunbar herself claimed that only a few locals had complained to her.

If Dunbar had been aware of many of the locals' hatred of the depiction of some of the people in D. H. Lawrence's Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, or of Thomas Wolfe's depiction of the people in his home in Asheville, North Carolina, she'd perhaps have known that, in Wolfe's words: You Can't Go Home Again. But Dunbar didn't move from home, she stayed in Buttershaw, and, more or less enslaved to drink, collapsed in the Beacon pub on the Buttershaw estate.

Clio Barnard's film is experimental, taking the words of survivors - above all Dunbar's two daughters Lorraine and Lisa - with actors lip-synching them. One of the things that slightly disappoints me about this film is the absence of what Max Stafford-Clark said about a conversation he had with Dunbar, asking him about the limits of drama - and Stafford-Clark specifically stating that she clearly wasn't talking about Brecht (of whom she'd almost certainly never heard) - of how far she could go with sex in the theatre. But it's Brecht who is at the forefront of The Arbor: the lip-synching creates a distancing effect, a disjuncture between the real and the artificial, which of course is the effect that Clio Barnard wants to create anyway. So why avoid mentioning Brecht? He's definitely there.

What is the Arbor to which The Arbor refers? It's Brafferton Arbor, which is the council area where Dunbar lived, and where she played out most of her life. It's prominent in the film, which is a mélange of the lip-synched episodes, documentary television footage, and scenes from The Arbor performed on the grassy area of Brafferton Arbor.

Most of all, it's Lorraine's story that counts. Lisa doesn't have any real problems with her mother, but Lorraine is the product of her mother's relationship with a Pakistani, and at a time when the estate was racist, that was important.

Lorraine was raped at 14, became a prostitute to support her drug habit, and was imprisoned for the manslaughter (by gross negligence) of her two-year-old baby Harris. It seems to be a cycle of deprivation, and as Lorraine graduated from crack to heroin, her baby (born addicted, according to Lorraine), died of an overdose of Lorraine's methodone.

But this is a wonderful movie that I don't recommend to anyone expecting thrills galore. The lip-synching, and the various stories told in hindsight, tell us how impossible the truth is to find, or rather, perhaps, that truth is plural. Brilliant is a word that comes to mind for this engrossing film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She looks exactly like me. My maiden name is, Barnard. I was told for years I had a twin, or was mistaken for someone else.maybe it was her.