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Artist's Choice Screening: The Arbor

Clio Barnard

Where possible, we invite the artist's exhibiting in DCA galleries to select a film to screen as an Artist's Choice Screening. 

To coincide with his exhibition, If Wishes Were Thrushes, Beggars Would Eat Birds, Stuart Whipps has selected The Arbor. This debut feature by Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Clio Barnard is a deeply moving, formally inventive look at the troubled life of the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. Eschewing traditional documentary or biopic techniques, Barnard’s film is something else entirely, an alchemical exploration of memory, trauma and personal truths.

A title card tells us that this “is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people whose story it tells”, and these heart-breaking testimonies are interspersed with footage of actors performing Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, in situ on Brafferton Arbor, the street in Bradshaw’s notorious Buttershaw council estate after which it was named. Archival footage of Dunbar and her family adds another layer of textual (and textural) interplay to the film, but under this experimental surface, Barnard excavates something raw, painful and honest in these stories.

Just as Dunbar herself uncovered and spotlighted those voices not often explored in the theatre world (young, female, working-class or facing poverty) in works like Rita, Sue and Bob Too (for which she also wrote the screenplay before subsequently disowning the finished film), so too does Barnard; the voices which ring out the loudest in this film are those of Dunbar’s daughters and what starts as a film about Dunbar herself slowly morphs into something else over the 90 minutes. There are echoes of Ken Loach and the early work of Lynne Ramsey, but The Arbor is unique: utterly tragic, but never voyeuristic, Barnard’s film’s strength ultimately lies in its even-handed, quietly devastating compassion.

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