(2010) director Clio Barnard
An unconventional documentary, The Arbor sets its sights on British playwright, Andrea Dunbar, who is best known for the film made from her screenplay called Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986). While that film is perhaps her most well-known work, documenting the voice and culture of northern England’s poor housing estates, the title of the film, The Arbor, is taken from Dunbar’s first play, which debuted in London in 1980 when she was 18 years old. Dunbar would die of a brain hemorrhage at age 29 in a pub in her native Bradford.
The film’s two main tropes that break significantly with documentary convention are that the interviews with friends, family, and others, were all recorded audio, but in offering a bit of anonymity, director Clio Barnard has actors lip-sync these oral histories, allowing at times for subtle commentaries and breaks with “reality” as well as “hiding” the real people behind the voices. When I had read about this approach, I thought it sounded artificial and arty, but the reality of it carries some weight, enhances the artifice which documentaries usually tend to try to pretend doesn’t exist in the form.
The other interesting conceit is having a group of actors perform the play “The Arbor” in the Arbor itself. The Arbor itself is an open plane of grass in the center of the housing estate, nicknamed “The Arbor” for the name of the road that runs past it. It takes little irony to recognize how little it resembles a true arbor. Among the people that live in the neighborhood now, the actors play out the drama from nearly 30 years before, bringing it “home”, so to speak.
Really, the film is about more than just Dunbar herself. It’s about, in part, the world of the housing estates that she wrote about, how twenty years have now passed since Dunbar’s death, and the life in those buildings has shifted. More specifically, the film focuses on Dunbar’s oldest daughter, Lorraine (she had 3 children by 3 different men in her short life).
Lorraine is the mainstay of the narrative. 11 years old when her mother died, she was the only one of her siblings to be of mixed race (her father was Pakistani). Britain’s great national racism was virulent in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, and while Dunbar was perhaps rebelling against that in her youth, Lorraine notes that her mother regretted having a mixed-race child in later years. As difficult enough as it would have been for any non-white child in that place at that time, Lorraine’s life was inflected by her mother’s perceived lack of love. And when her mother died, Lorraine got into drugs, then harder drugs, then prostitution. Lorraine’s story, both sympathetic and at times abhorrent, is deeply sad and tragic.
Andrea Dunbar died too young, never as one producer tells us, having achieved her “mature” phase of her work. She also died an alcoholic with a highly dysfunctional home life for her two girls and one young boy. It’s as if the genius of her precocious teens, who crafted theater from her real life, also went on to carry on with the same lifestyles that would leave her children bereft and broken. The brutal naturalism of the characters and language of Dunbar’s writing were ultimately her deep reality as well. And had she lived, and as life on the housing estates became more infested with crack and heroin and prostitution, perhaps the world of her “Arbor” would also have darkened.