The opening shot of The Arbor (2010), Clio Barnard’s breakthrough documentary, is that of a pair of mangy mutts snooping through pools of garbage: plastic shards, mudded branches, beer cans dented and dried. As if the remains of a bonfire being excavated for anything salvageable, we too—for 94 mins—are brought into an aftermath of a different kind, asked to piece together an irrecoverable truth.
Barnard’s site of interest is that of Bradford playwright, Andrea Dunbar, who by the time of her death at 29, had had a run of successful works produced by London’s renowned Royal Court Theatre, mothered three children by three different fathers, and endured a lifetime of addiction and abuse. But this is no ordinary bio-doc. Barnard steers a compelling study of generational damage by fudging the borders of fact and fiction.
The director uses actors who lip-sync pre-recorded interviews with Dunbar’s closest friends and family. You’d have to see it to believe it but the effect is eerily intimate. We feel utterly immersed yet disconnected at the same time. It’s a formally courageous and socially intricate approach that merges performance and reality into an enchanting collage. There are even passages plucked straight from Dunbar’s own autobiographical plays acted out in the very spaces in which she grew up: street corners, fields and laneways. And in the background, surrounding every performance, we see an audience of real life residents crowding the fringes. Just like Dunbar’s art, fiction emerges from the textures of reality.
However, Barnard’s focus is not on the playwright herself, but on those left behind in her wake. In what seems like a chronicle of neglect, we follow the stories of her children and dissect Dunbar’s legacy from a whole new angle. Anecdotes are artfully reimagined, told from different points of view. We begin to sieve through conflicting memories in search of truth, but the truth doesn’t interest Barnard as her negotiating forms of artifice (performance) and reality (pre-recorded interviews) serve to uncover how memory refracts our perceptions of reality.
With Selfish Giant (2013) and Dark River (2017) Barnard has continued her sensitive exploration of trauma, but neither film has matched the haunting and mesmerising effect The Arbor left behind.