Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Arbor: A Place of Pain, Heard but Not Seen

The Arbor
Directed By: Clio Barnard
Featuring: Andrea Dunbar, Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley
Director of Photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland, Editors: Nick Fenton and Daniel Goddard, Production Designer: Matthew Button, Original Music: Harry Escott and Molly Nyman
Rated: Not Rated, but violent language and a lot of talk of life at its most horrifying.

            The old adage about writing is “write what you know.” Many people take this too much to heart, and thus the number of novels, plays, and films about 20-somethings trying to write have becomes more than a cliché but instead a nuisance. But Andrea Dunbar never had that problem, and her play, The Arbor, is instead a perilously disturbing drama about growing up in a slum in Yorkshire.

            But director Clio Barnard’s film The Arbor is not an adaptation of Ms. Dunbar’s groundbreaking play, but a documentary of some sorts, and an exploration of the life around that area. Part documentary, part feature film, and all fascinating, The Arbor explores the life of Ms. Dunbar and her children, in particular one whose path recreated the mistakes of her mother.

            The way Ms. Barnard goes about recreating the film is what makes The Arbor unique and not just a simple exercise in recounting a life. The director recorded the interviews with the key players—Ms. Dunbar’s daughters, Lorraine and Lisa, her sister, others—and has actors play them in lip-synced versions. Thus we hear Lorraine’s voice, but we see an actress taking on the role. This frees Ms. Barnard visually to truly bring depth to the story we are exploring, carefully choosing her shots to create the perfect dramatic effect. She also has actors perform Ms. Dunbar’s play (written when she was 15) in the area itself, using the actual locations as the stage.

            Meta-documentary has become its own genre in the last few years, with works like Exit Through the Gift Shop provoking the form of documentary, but Ms. Barnard only uses those techniques to enhance her telling of Ms. Dunbar’s tragic life. Beaten and abused her entire young life, the young girl turned to playwriting to flesh out her anger, but never truly escaped her pain. The real drama comes as her first daughter Lorraine, a half-white half-Pakistani girl in a racist neighborhood, succumbs to drugs, prostitution, and everything Ms. Dunbar hopes to escape. In one sequence, perhaps the best use of the voiceover technique, we hear a series of reactions to a monologue Lorraine has contributed to a play in which she blames her mother for her drug abuse. We see the reactions in a single shot, in which each actor sits in the theater where it was performed.

It becomes obvious that Ms. Barnard is not creating a gimmick to hide the shameful faces; she is using the cinematic medium to enhance everything the story of The Arbor stands for. In this cyclical world of poverty, violence, rape, Ms. Barnard attempts to find some meaning in the art that has arisen, and the pain that continues to haunt many of the players who call that world home. 

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