The Arbor; (2010) dir. by Clio Barnard, available on Netflix Instant Watch
The Arbor is an intriguing look into the life and work of British playwright, Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990), of Rita, Sue and Bob Too fame, and, later in the film, an examination of her relationship with her daughter, Lorraine, and Lorraine’s life following her mother’s death.
Though I was unfamiliar with Dunbar or her work before watching this film, the documentary’s experimental structure and use of performances of her works, which are mostly autobiographical, allow the unfamiliar viewer to understand and invest in her, her described “genius,” and her importance to the people in her poor hometown of Bradford. “The Arbor” refers to Brafferton Arbor, the street on which she grew up, and the name of her first acclaimed play.
Director Clio Barnard conducted interviews with members of Dunbar’s family, which he then wove into an “audio screenplay.” While some video of Dunbar herself, and of her parents, appear in the film, the film is primarily actors lipsyncing to the audio of Dunbar’s kin. Understanding the very personal nature of Dunbar’s work to her hometown, he auditioned actors at the high school at which Dunbar wrote “The Arbor” for a school project, before it was debuted professionally.
And, instead of a narrator catching the viewer up to speed on Andrea’s life, segments of her biographical works are performed in a field on “the Arbor,” reinforcing the role of her location and community in her life and works.
The film’s later focus on Lorraine Dunbar, Andrea’s daughter, seems dragged out and rather undynamic, perhaps because the actress lipsyncing Lorraine’s words is simply shown doing chores while telling her life’s story and troubles. However, Barnard does bring Lorraine’s experiences back to focus on Andrea Dunbar’s legacy towards the endwhen discussing Lorraine’s participation in a staged performance about Brafferton Arbor, comprised of interviews with Arbor residents, and her family’s reactions to her words about her mother.
This is a good watch particularly for its innovative structure (which is setting me on a documentary kick!), and especially for anyone involved in or interested in theatre.