Look Who’s Talking: Clio Barnard Upends the Biopic


How do you tell a true story? If “based-on-actual-events” fiction distorts, and tell-all documentaries cherry-pick, how else to get at the real voice of experience? With her eerie and disarming feature debut, The Arbor, British video artist Clio Barnard offers one possible answer, using lip-synching and pastiche to retell the stories of playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughter Lorraine.

In 1980, a teenage Dunbar went from Bradford council-estate obscurity to Royal Court Theatre acclaim thanks to a play (The Arbor) she wrote, inspired by her experiences as a pregnant 15-year-old. Within 15 years, the embattled mother of three would be dead of an alcohol-related brain hemorrhage—a fate that then found a numbing follow-up in single mother Lorraine’s travails with drugs, prostitution, and abuse.

A tough tale to tell—and so Barnard lets the survivors speak for themselves. Her actors mime to audio interviews the filmmaker conducted over two years with Lorraine and her beloved foster parents and associates. Though following a documentary-like chronology, The Arbor shuffles these hypnotic “found” monologues in with TV footage, re-enactments, Au Pairs tunes, and an alfresco staging of Dunbar’s play The Arbor in . . . the Arbor (starring a local, Natalie Gavin).

Barnard grew up outside Bradford in the same generation as Dunbar, and vividly remembers an alternative take on the setting: Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a 1987 film adaptation of the playwright’s 1982 play about two frisky council-estate teens. After reading Dunbar’s work (including Rita) and A State Affair, a 2000 play that revisited her childhood haunts, Barnard received a commission for a project returning to the area once more, 10 years on.

Barnard’s gallery-inflected experimentation—an extension of her early career’s installation videos—deepens material that might have gotten the earnest Ken Loach treatment. “Part of it was thinking about how in the U.K., the working class, and this kind of subject matter, has a particular style that’s associated with it, which is British social realism,” she said. “I wanted an audience to think about the layers of representation. And Andrea Dunbar herself was a very direct communicator.” (In Dunbar’s original play The Arbor, the girl—basically the playwright’s voice—addresses the audience directly at the beginning of each scene.)

Dunbar got flak from neighbors for how she wrote up their lives, and Barnard’s distancing approach poses questions about the whole process of selecting and appropriating hard times for fiction. The variant voices of Barnard’s high-fidelity attempt acknowledge, for example, how Lorraine had “completely different memories of her mother” from younger sister Lisa, whose recollections are not as harsh. Barnard doesn’t just take the ugliest account and sell it—she includes both interpretations.

Though Barnard’s film often blurs its lines—merging various voices and mediums—the idea of retelling a life involved boundaries for Manjinder Virk, who plays Lorraine, born to Dunbar and her Pakistani boyfriend (and who therefore faced racism on top of everything else).

“I had a lot of information about her. But I didn’t want to meet her, I chose not to look at any pictures. I didn’t want to get stuck in trying to be her,” Virk said from London. The conceptual push-pull between “playing” Lorraine and simply embodying a voice was amusingly present from the get-go: “My agent got [the script] and thought it was a voiceover job.”

“What the actors did is they listened to the audio over and over again, and learned every pause, every breath,” Barnard said of the lip-synching. “It’s very technical, but at the same time they also have to deliver a ‘true performance,’ which is a paradoxical term that I really like.”

The Arbor’s technique is at once avant-garde and utterly mainstream (see: music videos), but despite a certain remove, the disjunction actually encourages a closer bond between character and audience, as if hearing the voice puts you inside Lorraine’s head.

“It is fascinating,” said Barnard of the lip-synching effect. “It’s something my kids play with a lot. At the train announcement, they’ll mouth the words, and it’s fun, the idea, that it might be coming out of their mouths . . . knowing that it can’t be, but, for a moment, believing that it is.”