Thursday, April 24, 2014

Life and Death in the Arbor: "The Arbor" (2011)

British film maker Clio Barnard takes what could have been a gimmicky film making stunt, and turns it into a stunning documentary that shakes the viewer.

Andrea Dunbar was an English teenager who penned a play entitled "The Arbor," about life in the British equivalent of American housing projects. Her play mirrored her own existence, and she was quickly vaulted into theatre literati. She had two children by the time she was out of her teen years, had a third child young (all three were by different fathers), and died of a brain hemorrhage in a pub at the age of 29, five days before Christmas in 1990.

Her children, still growing up in the housing area, are scattered to extended family members and foster homes. The oldest daughter, Lorraine, is half-Pakistani, and must deal with racism on a daily basis. She then becomes a drug addict and prostitute, and after having a few children of her own (mirroring her mother, who she came to hate), suffers a tragedy that sends her to prison.

This is not your straightforward documentary. What Barnard has done is record audio interviews with the subjects (Andrea Dunbar's children, family, and neighbors), and then has actors and actresses lip synch the lines. It is not as goofy or conceited as it sounds, I was quickly taken with the idea. Interspersed with these scenes is old news and documentary footage of the real Andrea Dunbar talking about her writing and upbringing (she comes off as a very harsh young woman), and another group of actors dramatizing Dunbar's play in the neighborhood where the play is set (the chosen scenes are well-acted but Dunbar's lines sometimes play melodramatically).

I don't know what possessed Barnard to conceive this film, but I am grateful she did. I had no clue who Dunbar was, but what happened to her and her brood is infinitely interesting. This film is not a loving look back through rose-colored glasses, and Dunbar does not come off very well (her child-raising skills were lacking thanks to her alcoholism). The story of her daughter Lorraine is tragic and maddening. Barnard never presents all the facts for the viewer, she entices the events along, giving just enough to make you want to know what happens but without teasing. The structure is incredible. The actors, having to lip synch others' words, do a great job. They must tailor their reactions to another person's voice, literally, and they do this so well you will quickly forget this was "dubbed."

This came out in the United Kingdom in 2010, and was released in the United States the following year, and I can say without a doubt "The Arbor" is one of the best documentaries of the decade. (* * * * *) out of five stars.