Director: Clio Barnard
Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Stars: Kate Rutter, Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, George Costigan
Studio/Running Time: Strand Releasing, 94 min.
In 1988 The Thin Blue Line caused an uproar in the documentary community through its recreation of scenes, breaking dramatically with the prevalent direct cinema/cinéma vérité tradition that many thought of as the only type of true documentary. During the intervening years this device has become accepted as just one more way of telling a true story, but that doesn’t make The Arbor’s evolution of this concept any less interesting. Drawing from “verbatim theater,” in which a play is constructed out of recorded dialogue, The Arbor primarily consists of actors lip-syncing to recorded interviews, speaking directly to the camera in circumstances that never existed so as to heighten the dramatic effect. It’s done so seamlessly that were the film not to say what’s happening, it would be assumed that these people miming dialogue were in fact speaking.
This Brechtian approach to documentary shapes the film’s account of the playwright Andrea Dunbar’s life. Despite writing several successful plays and a film during her lifetime, she was a terrible mother to her three children, born to three different fathers and subject to child abuse. She was alcoholic and died at the age of 29, and her life is told largely through interviews with those who knew her but also through her semi-autobiographical plays. The Arbor stages scenes she wrote in the area she was living, showing how they commented on her life and the lives of those she touched. Added to this is one more level, in which the actors playing her real children watch real footage of Dunbar during her life.
Despite all the layers of complexity being thrown at audiences, The Arbor is elegant and simply shot. Every character is given time to tell their view on her life, and while Dunbar herself was absent, the found footage and play work well as a way of imparting what she thought of herself to the audience. The lip-syncing is also integral to shaping the film, since the confessional thoughts of its participants on rape, prostitution and drug addiction seem unlikely to have been as forthcoming were people being filmed. It’s a way of telling the story without creating more trauma for those involved, and director Clio Bernard doesn’t just show how it can be used but also why in some cases it’s absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, Dunbar herself largely leaves the picture halfway through and the focus shifts to her daughter Lorraine. Following her mother’s death Lorraine spent much the rest of her life dealing with a heroin and crack addiction, and The Arbor follows her through it. This shift of subjects is still interesting, but it’s not the same movie as the first half and its themes and ideas are entirely different. There’s a story to be told here, but melding it into her mother’s is an odd choice that never completely works.
Formally The Arbor breaks new ground while still doing justice, for better or worse, to the woman whose life it sets out to tell. But with Lorraine it loses track of what it wants to say and any control over what type of film it is slips away. The film’s strange way of meandering off its original topic is never resolved, but even with its deficiencies The Arbor is always intelligent cinema.