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David Thomson on Films: ‘The Arbor’

A new movie that redefines the line between documentary and fiction.

What do “documentary” and “newsreel” hope to mean in this benighted age of the Internet, when information threatens to overwhelm intelligence? Though the genre is still hard to fund and difficult to make, there is no doubt but that, in the last 20 years, more documentaries have been getting limited theatrical release. So an orthodox complacency reigns that this is “a good thing.” But is the age of Michael Moore, Ken Burns, Werner Herzog, Frederick Wiseman, and movies like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job really useful and critical of how we are being run? Or is it just documentary sugar that flatters our helplessness?

So liberal, uneasy America can argue that, as American movies become more fatuous and far-fetched, and as television rejects documentary in favor of what it calls “reality” (this is Orwellian newspeak), it is an “improvement” to see more films taking on “important” issues. I agree in principle, but glib assumptions that plain films tell the truth are still deeply suspicious. Our better documentaries have a negligible record at altering the circumstances they address. Our best-known documentaries are often like our best fiction films: They are portraits of their makers more than their alleged subjects.

Ken Burns remains lofty, inspirational, and Whitmanesque in his adoration of America while the country goes steadily to hell. Michael Moore has become an entertaining American curmudgeon, and a label that advises—send to deep filing. Werner Herzog is one of our wizard voices on film, but his crooning to himself makes for Munchausen-like episodes in The Adventures of Werner Herzog. Far too much documentary is inert artistically and pointless in any lasting political sense. Frederick Wiseman’s flawless, impassive witness tells us we might as well be helpless. Charles Ferguson put his finger on the cancerous economy; he pressed and it squeaked, but he guessed nothing would happen. We shrug off the gloomiest docs in the way we have muted the most seductive ads. And we endure a lot of klunky talking-head shots in the fantasy that we are being told “the truth”.

It’s against that background that Clio Barnard’s The Arbor is such a stunning and provocative achievement. The sweet-sounding Arbor is an English euphemism: It signals a depressed street, Brafferton Arbor, in the Yorkshire city of Bradford, once a center for the world textile industry, but now a wreck of a place where unemployment, racism, drugs, and what is called “the breakdown of the community” redefined an age-old poverty.

Andrea Dunbar was raised in the Arbor, and, at 15, she wrote a play with the same name. It got noticed and ended up at the Royal Court theatre in London (in 1980) and in New York. She did two other plays, Rita, Sue and Bob, Too! (which was filmed by Alan Clarke—a large influence on this new picture) and A State Affair. She had three different children by three different fathers, and she died in a local pub of an embolism, aggravated by alcoholism, in 1990. She was 28. Her plays described the harsh life she had known, and they were written in its automatically rough language. She had talent, to be sure, but who can say how far she could have reached or whether she might have gained “maturity”? (That may not be a goal many people on the Arbor took seriously after their upbringing.)

The director of this film, Clio Barnard, came from the same part of Yorkshire, though I’m sure from a better class and much better schooling. And she was drawn to explore the lives of Andrea’s three kids: Lorraine (born to a Pakistani father), Lisa, and Andrew. She collected sound interviews with them and then edited that material into a story. Next, she cast actors to play the children and some of their friends, lip-synching to the sound tapes.

Now, you may complain that that sounds like an escape from “reality” or a descent into artiness. But Clio Barnard has the intellectual rigor and a sense of drama that knows documentary is always as mediated as fiction. She is looking for a form where we must pay acute attention to what is said (and how) and to the emerging disagreements among the witnesses. Not to spoil the story—and that’s what it becomes—there is a gap between the views of their life, as held by Lorraine (Manjinder Virk) and Lisa (Christine Bottomley). Assessing it asks us to define our own moral stance.

The Arbor is enriched by British TV material—an Arena documentary made on Andrea in 1980—and later newsreel. There is also street theater at Brafferton Arbor, where actors playing Andrea (Natalie Gavin, so salty and wry) and her family sit on sofas on the scruffy grass in front of the telly, ranting and ratting at each other, while their neighbors watch like onlookers at an accident.

For the most part, the filming is functional and severe, though there is one heady shot of Lorraine the child dancing on top of a car to Islamic music with the hills and valleys of Yorkshire in view that is like Bollywood mixed with the world of Ken Loach. The very difficult task imposed on the actors leads to luminous work (Bottomley is outstanding) in which we see the lip-synching as a nearly Cubist structural device—in America, this is enhanced because the distributor has elected (wisely) to supply English sub-titles for the Yorkshire dialect. And, because everything is so mediated and layered, we become jury-like in following the heartbreaking case. So this is not just a slap in the face about the hard lives some people lead—it is an inquiry into why. That “why” is political: How has the grace and closeness of an earlier Yorkshire led to this drab, demoralized life? But it is personal, too: How could Lorraine behave as she did?

The Arbor is Clio Barnard’s first full-length film. It won a prize at the recent Tribeca Festival and played at the San Francisco Festival. As yet, Strand Releasing has given it a limited and under-funded opening in New York and Los Angeles. Nag them to let you see it. The Arbor is not a raw slice of mere reality; it is a construction filled with narrative intricacy and formal intelligence. It is less a “documentary” than an absorbing piece of fiction that employs documentary as its genre.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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