The Arbor

One of the best films of the century, and I truly believe that if it said, say, "Orson Welles" at the top instead of "Clio Barnard", it would be widely recognized as such.

There are essentially two stories here:
First, the story of Andrea Dunbar, who won a national playwriting competition at age 15 with a piece based on experiences she lived or witnessed living in a very lower-class housing project, and went on to a professional writing career (including the script for Rita, Sue and Bob Too) before tragically dying young - of a brain hemorrhage, which may or may not have been brought on by a lifetime of hard living.

Second, the story of her eldest daughter Lorraine Dunbar, a mixed-race child (Pakistani father) whose life quickly became one long downward spiral into drugs, sex work, abuse, and worse.

Both of those would be interesting enough on their own, but the film isn't really about them.

It's about the blurry line between fiction and reality.

Like F for Fake (hence the comparison at the top), it begins by directly telling you that what you're seeing isn't exactly real - the film in fact consists (mostly) of actors lip-syncing to audio recordings of the actual people they depict (Andrea, Lorraine, and other friends and family). Despite this, you're virtually guaranteed to forget that before it's over - I did in both viewings. So you see the dynamic: like Dunbar's own writing, it's reality being transmitted to you through artifice.

It's interesting because it's inverted from the usual - it's easy to forget, even watching a realistic drama, that there's almost always some fundamental reality behind the fiction (whether a literal experience or more general feelings driving the creator, which inevitably derive from their own experiences), but here you forget that there's fiction in front of that reality.

But this film also shows this the other way, by staging minimalist renditions of scenes from Dunbar's work in the places she grew up, where she had the experiences that she drew into her work. By minimalist, I mean there's a scene on the bus, and the set is a handful of chairs in rows in the middle of the street. The street that she rode that bus on, having this exact conversation. It's showing the fiction, but blowing away the artifice to show the reality behind it.

The way it bounces back and forth between these two methods forces the viewer to confront the delineation between fact and fiction, appreciate how imprecise it actually is, and hopefully take that lesson forward when viewing other art, or the world at large.

There's another wrinkle too that I picked up on much more this time: Lorraine is, not an unreliable narrator exactly (I don't think there's any real dispute that these things all really happened to her more or less the way she says), but a biased one. She elides or minimizes certain things that she thinks might make her look, well she already looks bad, but might make her look even worse - that the others in her life then explicate. So you see the artifice in how people present themselves, perhaps how they even view themselves, because it's always done through layers of fiction, essentially, because retelling is inherently abstracted from reality.

That's not to say that she's not worthy of sympathy; her story is genuinely tragic, as she was forced into terrible situations by poverty, racism, and abuse. But she also made some terrible decisions that compounded those problems, which ultimately led to an unthinkable crime. And the people filling in the details she leaves out are, I think, also sympathetic, if stern - but then you remember that's the way the actors are playing it, not necessarily the way those people really feel (though the timbre of the voice is real).

Which leads to the last major layer here, because her story made national headlines: now we see in exquisite detail the years and years of life experiences, the terrible traumas, and the complex web of relationships and intertwined lives behind a cold, blunt headline and one-page news item you might scan for 30 seconds over morning coffee before letting it out of your mind for good. And how misleading, or at least, incomplete, those headlines are. I don't know if real history can be SPOILED, but if you want to go in not knowing what her story leads to, skip those links til after (though I don't think anything is particularly lost if you know the whole story going in).

All that in about 90 minutes.

It's a hard watch but an absolutely brilliant one. It's two stories worth knowing unto themselves, that are then used to make you reevaluate and deepen your understanding of how the world is presented to you, through "fact" and "fiction", through dispassionate news reports and real conversations with people you encounter every day on the street. And I dare say it's even more relevant now than when it was made in 2010, with "fake news" the preeminent problem of our society and so much of our world being experienced through social media, where everyone is a crafted persona and literal disinformation operatives can put their story right in front of you without you even knowing it.

Some day this film will get its due.

I very much regret waiting until the literal last second to rewatch it on Criterion Channel last night and then write this, since it's harder to see now. It's still accessible on Amazon in various forms, though.

Clio Barnard, 52 Weeks, 52 Different Women Filmmakers: 2021 #47

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