Andrea Dunbar was a major figure in British theater in the Thatcher era. The life -- and afterlife -- of the playwright is the subject of Clio Barnard's new documentary The Arbor. Most Americans know the lives of poor white Britons from comic strips such as Andy Capp and characters such as the perpetually undershirted brother-in-law in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances. Yet Dunbar grew up in decaying British housing estates, in a dysfunctional family where father drinks too much and everyone hates Pakistani immigrants. Dunbar wrote a heartfelt, autobiographical play called The Arbor, named after her 'hood's nickname, when she was 15, and later another based on the doings of herself, her friends, and her neighbors called Rita, Sue, and Bob Too! Both were produced by celebrated impresario Max Stafford-Clark to major acclaim. She then wrote the screenplay for the film of Rita, directed by Alan Clarke in 1987. Dunbar herself stayed on her home ground, drinking more and writing less, until her sudden death -- at age 29 -- in 1989.
Barnard's film The Arbor consists of the recorded comments of Dunbar's surviving friends and relatives, most particularly her two daughters Lisa and Lorraine. Barnard hit upon the notion of having these comments mouthed not by the real people but by actors, who move through the landscapes of Dunbar's life. A full half of the film covers the aftermath of Dunbar's death, recording in first person Lorraine's hellish life. As the 11-year-old daughter of a white teenager and a Pakastani, Lorraine suffered discrimination in addition to drug abuse, prostitution, and a trial for the death of her 2-year-old son.
The Arbor opens tonight (Friday) at the Roxie. We recently spoke with Barnard about how she conceived and shot this breakthrough film.
What drew you to this material?
I was interested in Max Stafford-Clark's idea of revisiting The Arbor a decade on from Dunbar's plays to see what had changed there. (Stafford-Clark produced a play, A State Affair, about Dunbar and her surroundings in 2000.) I wanted to go back for a third time and reflect on the previous representations of the neighborhood on stage and on screen.
How familiar are you with Dunbar's subject matter?
I didn't grow up in a place like Brafferton Arbor, I grew up in the countryside near by. I am the same generation as Andrea Dunbar, so Rita and Sue were familiar characters to me, like girls I went to school with.
Would you call your film a documentary?
I had to make a decision about that when I entered it for a film festival, and I decided to enter it as a documentary. For me, it engages with ideas about documentary that have concerned documentary makers since the early days of film. I am a great admirer of Jean Rouch and his film Chronicle of a Summer, which is a self-reflexive documentary that acknowledges the artifice involved in making any film. Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line was also an important film for me.
What other filmmakers or movements that have inspired you?
Authenticity is a dangerous idea in film. The filmmaker Penny Woolcock, who made two brilliant fiction films based on fact called Tina Goes Shopping and Tina Takes a Break, once said to me that you can't tell the truth by making a documentary. And I find that inspiring. One of the films I saw as a teenager that made a great impression on me was Kurosawa's Rashomon, which also deals with ideas of truth in subject and form.
How did you get the idea of hiring actors to mouth your interviewees' words?
I had used the technique in a short film I made in 1998. It was the similarities and differences between this technique and the technique of verbatim theater that interested me.
How did you conduct the interviews?
Just me and a small recording device and a mic. There was no camera. The interviews took place over many hours and on different days.
Were they listening to the interviews as they mouthed the words?
Yes, they had a small earpiece in their ear, which played the words on a loop.
Did you shoot entirely on real locations or were there sets?
All of the interiors are sets, apart from one.
What led you to focus on Lorraine?
I knew Lorraine was important because of her words at the end of A State Affair -- she provided the link back to Andrea's plays by mentioning Rita, Sue. When the film was commissioned by Artangel, I didn't know what had happened to Lorraine in the 10 years since A State Affair. I found out she was awaiting her hearing following the death of her son. Soon after, I saw the archive of Andrea with baby Lorraine and was very moved by it. At that point I thought it would probably be the end of the film. It was Lorraine who led me back to Andrea in a way.
You only briefly allude to Lorraine's conversion to Islam. Why?
Lorraine converted to Islam when she was in her early 20s. Although it was an important step for her and she prayed while she was in prison, her religion didn't play a huge part in her life. I thought it was important to acknowledge her conversion but did not want to dwell on it.
Only one real person played himself in your film. How did that happen?
Gary Whitaker played himself because he is an actor, who was in A State Affair, and he grew up on Buttershaw. The other actors were, where possible, cast from a pool of actors who had been involved with Andrea Dunbar's work previously. So, for example, George Costigan, who played Bob in the film of Rita, Sue, and Bob Too!, plays Jimmy the Wig in my film The Arbor. Catherine Pogson who played "The Girl" in the original production of Andrea's play, The Arbor, plays Andrea's sister Pamela in my film.
What does the real Lorraine or anyone else think of your film?
Lorraine was the first person to see the film. She said she was "very raw from it but in a good way." Her foster parents Ann and Steve feel the same. It is hard for Lisa to hear what Lorraine says about Andrea. As the film shows, they have very different points of view. I think the film is hard for Andrea's siblings for the same reason -- though all of them have been supportive of the film. Lisa came to the premiere and we sat together holding hands through that screening. I am still good friends with Pamela. We put up a plaque on the house in Brafferton Arbor where they all grew up after the film was finished and they came to unveil it. The people who live on Brafferton Arbor now, who you see watching the play in the film, feel a great sense of ownership over the film, which is very rewarding for me.
The Arbor screens Friday-Saturday, Aug. 19-20, and again Monday-Thursday, Aug. 22-25, at the Roxie Theater. A new print of Rita, Sue, and Bob Too! screens Saturday, Aug. 20.