Movies

The Arbor

The Arbor featured image

The Arbor

Clio Barnard, director

Featuring: Manjinder Virk (Lorraine Dunbar), Christine Bottomeley (Lisa Thompson), Natalie Gavin (Andrea Dunbar), Andrea Dunbar (herself in archival footage), Kate Rutter (Andrea’s mother), Monica Dolan (Ann), Neil Dudgeon (Steve), Jonathan Jaynes (David Dunbar), Matthew McNulty (Andrew Dunbar), Jimi Mistry (Yousaf), and the voices of Lorraine Dunbar, Lisa Thompson, Andrew Dunbar, Ann, Steve, Max Stafford-Clark and the rest

Best British Newcomer & Most Original Debut Feature at the London Film Festival 2010; Best Debut Director at the British Independent Film Awards 2010; Best New Documentary Film-maker at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010.

Back in 1980 in the midst of Thatcher’s right wing revolution, with its crushing of British unions and reinforcement of the class system, an angry young teenager named Andrea Dunbar arrived at London’s Royal Court theatre from Bradford’s tough Buttershaw estate with a brilliant play called “The Arbor.” It was set amidst the hardscrabble lives of families living in poverty that had gone on for generations, and dramatized the experiences of a pregnant teenaged girl with her drunken, abusive father.

A few years later, she wrote an even better play, leavened with dark humour and sex, Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, which was made into a hit TV/film by Alan Clarke. Dunbar had time to have one more play produced, “Shirley,” before she died of a brain aneurism caused by extreme alcoholism. She was 29 years old.

Thirty years after Dunbar’s first drama shocked and thrilled Britain’s theatre world, another young woman from Bradford, Clio Barnard, went back to the playwright’s street, Brafferton Arbor, to create another remarkable piece of docu-drama. The Arbor looks back at Dunbar’s life, which included the making of three babies as well as three plays.

Two of her children, Lisa Thompson and Andrew Dunbar have done reasonably well but the third, Lorraine, horrified the area when she was convicted of the manslaughter of her two-year old son, who overdosed on methadone. Now out of prison and off heroin, Lorraine is the focus of The Arbor. When the film was shot, she was 29 years old.

Not content to create a standard, hard-hitting social documentary, Barnard decided to make something genuinely radical. Riffing from “verbatim” theatre in which actors speak lines that have genuinely been spoken by real people in the news, she’s created a new configuration for docu-dramas. Barnard spent two years interviewing the Dunbar family and other denizens of the Buttershaw estate. She then hired actors to play all of the characters in the film–and had them lip-synch to the voices of the people she’d interviewed.

Barnard’s technique creates an odd coolness in the film’s tone despite its relentlessly bleak narrative. Her healthy, attractive thespians are trying to engage you with their characters–but the lip-synch forces the audience out of their emotional states. You end up analyzing what happened to Andrea and her children: the why becoming as important as the “what”. No answers are provided by the filmmaker–we’re all left to sort out what has changed and what remains of the conditions that drove two generations of Dunbars into desperate circumstances.

The Arbor has won major prizes at festivals in London and New York. Deservedly. This groundbreaking film is hardly a date movie. But it should be seen by mature, engaged audiences worldwide.

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