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Clio Barnard’s The Arbor

Clio Barnard, The Arbor, 2010, still from a color HD video, 90 minutes. Lorraine (Manjinder Virk) and Lisa Thompson (Christine Bottomley).

AFTER LAST YEAR’S GLUT of bumptious, high-profile nonfiction films—some of which were revealed to be hoaxes (Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here), possible hoaxes (Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop), or artless, witless pseudohoaxes (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish)—Clio Barnard’s Brechtian documentary The Arbor stands out all the more for its seamless hybridization of fact and fiction. Barnard, an artist making her feature-length directorial debut, traces the troubled life and legacy of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961–1990), whose highly autobiographical work chronicled her grim existence on the Bradford, West Yorkshire, council estate where she grew up. (And which she never left: Dunbar died of a brain hemorrhage at age twenty-nine, shortly after collapsing at her local pub.) Though widely acclaimed for her three plays—her first, The Arbor, premiered in 1980 at London’s Royal Court Theatre; her second, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, was made into a film by Alan Clarke in 1986—Dunbar succumbed to chronic alcoholism and bore three children by three different, often psychotically violent, men. The fallout from Dunbar’s fame and self-destruction for her family, particularly her firstborn, Lorraine, becomes the transfixing through line of Barnard’s film—one that the director develops using a deliberate distancing device that, paradoxically, draws viewers in even closer.

Barnard’s bold intervention in the bio-doc borrows from the tradition of verbatim theater, in which plays are composed from the transcripts of interviews about a particular topic. (An early example, and a direct inspiration for the filmmaker, is Robin Soans’s A State Affair, from 2000, which revisits Dunbar’s world twenty years after The Arbor’s initial staging and features testimony from Lorraine.) In the film, actors lip-synch to the actual audio recordings of Barnard’s interviewees, who, in addition to Dunbar’s children, include her siblings, her exes, the couple who served as foster parents to Lorraine (and, eventually, to Lorraine’s son), and Max Stafford-Clark, the former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre. Barnard is up-front about her unconventional approach, beginning the film with a title card that announces: “This is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people whose story it tells.”

That devastating story opens with Lorraine, played by Manjinder Virk, looking out the window of what is supposed to be the house where she grew up. “I got loads of childhood memories, but none of them are really good. I don’t think you remember the good stuff,” she says, listing “Mom out in the pub, Mom comatosed in bed” among her strongest recollections. At first, Barnard’s self-reflexive strategy has an unsettling, ghostly effect. But as the film progresses, the “ventriloquism” her actors perform only heightens the emotion and impact of what’s being said. Had Barnard chosen to follow the conventional method of presenting her subjects as mere talking heads, the film might have come across as yet another documentary exploiting a family’s endless series of tragedies.

Lorraine is soon joined by her younger sister, Lisa (Christine Bottomley), who has much sunnier memories of her mother, thinking back proudly on all the late nights Dunbar spent writing in her bedroom. As the two siblings, standing side by side, recount a particularly horrific incident from their childhood, we get our first hint of both the abject misery Dunbar passed on to Lorraine and the ways in which Barnard will interrogate memory throughout the film: Lisa and her brother, Andrew, may have largely escaped Lorraine’s fate—or may simply prefer not to dwell on the past.

Though the acting/lip-synching of the testimony of Barnard’s subjects forms the main component of her film, it is interwoven with two other, equally fascinating layers: archival footage of Dunbar herself and a live staging of her play The Arbor (overseen by Barnard) on the lawn of the Buttershaw Estate, the housing project that served as the inspiration for all of the dramatist’s work. Barnard blends these disparate elements flawlessly, and each converses illuminatingly with the others. Footage of Dunbar from 1987, on BBC News’ Look North program, shows the ravages of drinking on the then twenty-six-year-old’s face, further amplifying Lorraine’s painful recapitulations of her mother’s violent, erratic behavior. A scene from the alfresco production of The Arbor—with present-day Buttershaw Estate residents looking on—introduces us to the play’s character Yousaf (Jimi Mistry), essentially a surrogate for the young Pakistani man who was Lorraine’s father. The girl will later recall overhearing her mother, coming home drunk one night, telling her boyfriend at the time that she regretted having Lorraine and could never love her as much as she loved her two white children—yet another psychic wound that foreshadows the eldest daughter’s gruesome bottoming out.

Lorraine was eleven when Dunbar died; shortly thereafter, her life spiraled downward into heroin and crack addiction, sexual abuse, prostitution, and, in 2007, imprisonment for manslaughter after her two-year-old son overdosed on her methadone. “I chose drugs over my son,” she says flatly, in scenes staged in what is gradually revealed to be a penitentiary.

We see Lorraine leave prison, affirming that she’s clean and sober; she’s now in her thirties—an age her mother never reached. Both an act of homage to Dunbar’s accomplishments and a methodical excavation of the cycle of social dysfunction, Barnard’s documentary is that all too rare thing in nonfiction filmmaking: equal parts fluid art and impeccable reportage.

The Arbor opens at Film Forum in New York on April 27.

Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.