|Andrea Dunbar (Monica Dolan) in The Arbor.|
By Don Simpson
The eighth annual True/False Film Festival (March 3-6, 2011) transformed downtown Columbia, Missouri into a utopian haven of nonfiction cinema. Featuring an impressive selection of the best documentaries from major international film festivals (as well as five "top secret" screenings of films pending high profile official world premieres elsewhere), True/False purposefully programs nonfiction films that provoke dialogues about their subjects and bring into question the ethical responsibilities of the documentary form itself.
Complimenting the films, the True/False Film Festival offers a seamless integration of live music into their four-day program as well as debates, game shows and parties, parties and more parties.
In what has come to be known as verbatim theatre, transcripts of interviews, hearings and/or trials are dramatised on stage by actors. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film Howl is probably the best cinematic example of this novel storytelling technique, but director Clio Barnard really ups the ante by having her actors lipsync dialogue to audio-recorded interviews, further morphing the line between reality and fiction.
Barnard’s film is about Andrea Dunbar, the West Yorkshire author of three gritty social-realist plays who died in 1990 of a brain hemorrhage at the ripe young age of 29. Dunbar hailed from Bradford, England's rough and tumble Buttershaw Estate (dubbed "the Arbor"). The dialogue in The Arbor is taken directly from interviews conducted by Barnard of Dunbar's family, friends and children while passages from Dunbar's intensely autobiographical plays are re-created by actors amongst the (marginally improved) streets of modern day Buttershaw with a live audience of the estate’s residents. The Arbor also cleverly sprinkles some choice selections from A State Affair (Robin Soans’ biographical play about Dunbar) as well as archival television interview footage with the real Dunbar and her family.
The Arbor brings emotionally heavy subjects such as child and domestic violence as well as racism to the forefront of the narrative -- and let us just say that Dunbar’s penchant for alcoholism and poor life decisions does not bode well for her children, especially her half-Pakistani child, Lorraine (Manjinder Virk). Lorraine begins hiding from the reality of her own shitty existence at a very early age by immersing herself into a non-stop drug-induced haze; then she passes along her genetic history of neglect to her own children, increasing said neglect tenfold to morally troublesome limits.
Dunbar’s story is not all fire and brimstone. The one bright light within The Arbor is her success as a teenage playwright. Dunbar began her first play, The Arbor, in 1977, at the age of 15, for an English class. The completed play, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1980. Dunbar’s writing debut won the Young Writers' Festival then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to play in New York City. Dunbar was promptly commissioned to write a second play -- Rita, Sue and Bob Too -- which premiered in 1982. (Rita, Sue and Bob Too was adapted by Dunbar into a film directed by Alan Clarke.) Dunbar's third and final play is Shirley (1986). Despite her theatrical success, Dunbar never escaped the grim and downtrodden environs of Buttershaw and her downward spiral into alcoholism never stopped.
With a unique merging of fact and fiction, The Arbor is able to reconstruct the pain and struggle within Dunbar's work as well as reveal the dour consequences her life choices had on her family. Barnard’s stylistic choice of having her actors confide in the camera (therefore the audience) is a purposeful cinematic devise to add more hyper to the hyper-reality by bringing more self-consciousness into the mix.
Barnard is as sympathetic as possible towards Dunbar and her children, rightfully chalking up most of the atrocities recreated in this social realist documentary hybrid to poor economics and politics. In style and tone, The Arbor is truly an homage to Dunbar’s gritty working-class narrative style and aesthetic with clear allusions to the glory days of British kitchen sink cinema.