by Vadim Rizov

The Arbor

The late British playwright Andrea Dunbar's main claim to fame was her 1982 play "Rita, Sue and Bob Too"?or, rather, the 1987 film version of it, which attracted viewers not necessarily interested in the social problems of life on council estates. Dunbar's unsparing ear for life among disenfranchised citizens in the middle of the U.K. analogue to housing projects was tempered by director Alan Clarke's endless tracking shots, which give momentum and verve to lives lacking either. Followed for 50 feet at a time at remarkable speed, Rita's characters are turned into energetic leads despite a background where thick, Yorkshire-accented variants on "You bastard!" are the most commonly heard refrain. The sheer degree of free-floating hostility is unexpectedly comical in its excess: these are people who clearly enjoy yelling at each other.

Though Rita's view on social problems came via energetic tracking shots, The Arbor director Clio Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland plant their camera down to observe how nothing on the Buttershaw Estate has changed for the better since Dunbar's 1980 debut play "The Arbor." Both play and film draw their name from a street in the run-down locale; Clarke zoomed around it, but Barnard and Birkeland cruise around the perimeter of the public lawn, as if waiting in a police car, ominously waiting for trouble to start while the voices of family and friends speak. Rita is comedy; The Arbor is hard-to-shake tragedy.

The Arbor

It's probably safe to say Dunbar wasn't an attentive parent; she was an excellent writer, but that's not what The Arbor is about. The first third is a concise version of her life: footage from her BBC appearances, interviews with friends and family and staged snippets of "The Arbor." After the play's success, Dunbar wrote the well-received "Rita" and the less-so "Shirley," along with the screenplay for Clarke's Rita. Then in 1990, she died alone in a pub bathroom at the age of 29, a bleak end even for a life doomed by domestic abuse and alcoholism. The interviews are from real audio, but as lip-synched by actors. Their mouths don't always match the words, creating a severe distancing effect, but the performances are remarkably good: it never looks like anyone is overtly "acting." Instead, the presence of naturalistic stand-ins lets Barnard carefully frame and artificially light her subjects without distracting "the interviewees." Scenes from "The Arbor" are staged on the estate's open lawn, with trained professionals flawlessly slipping into beer-fueled arguments while a crowd of real present-day residents stand around gawking. It's obvious that none of the grandparents, downtrodden mothers and fathers, or young children in the crowd is unnerved by what they're seeing. The texture of Dunbar's three-decade-old arguments still fits right in with the descendants of her characters. Whether what we're seeing is a play, staged testimony or archival footage, it's clear that in thirty years, the social problems Dunbar staged as tragicomedy have only worsened.

It helps to know how dense some of the casting is (e.g., Dunbar's sister Pamela is played by Kathryn Hogson, who was in the first staging of "The Arbor"), but the point comes through without that insight: in Bernard's estimation, there was no distance between Dunbar's art and life. Her plays are about booze, unexpected pregnancies, joblessness and uninspiring environments: the correspondence to Dunbar's life is often one to one, especially in Rita's virulent portrait of Aslam, a kindly Pakistani immigrant who turns abusive and controlling with no warning. The Arbor connects the dots between the malevolent Pakistani men in her work and Dunbar's relationship with Yousef, the father of her eldest daughter Lorraine.

The Arbor

Lorraine grew up with a scarring memory of her mother, noting she couldn't love her mixed-race child as much as her other two children. Though the film doesn't mention it, Lorraine Dunbar is now Muslim convert Samaya Rafiq; to get to a lifestyle of religious devotion and sobriety, she went through years of prostitution, drug addiction, abusive relationships and worse. That her life seems like an apple not far from her mother's tree (with crack and heroin compounding economic disenfranchisement) has been brought up before; The Guardian discussed the idea in 2007 (in an article that could constitute spoiler territory for those who want to see The Arbor knowing nothing). Her hard-knock path landed her in jail: in hypnotic snippets, Lorraine is seen picking up prisoner laundry, folding sheets and her possessions, and staring at DVDs of her mom on TV, occasionally sputtering in surprise or disgust. These scenes serve as potent counterbalance to Dunbar's undeniably entertaining work; Lorraine's quiet yet disquieting brooding is just as transfixing.

"I could have gone to Buttershaw and made a film that was completely optimistic," Barnard told The Independent last year while musing on how present-day budget cuts have left Britain's poorest citizens at the mercy of the cheapest, most deadly escape around. "But if the end of the film said, 'Actually, everything's OK,' that would be a false reassurance." Awarding more screen time to Lorraine's life and problems, The Arbor eventually turns away entirely from Dunbar's plays: as the actors stare into the camera, their silent gaze drowns her words.

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Posted by ahillis at September 6, 2011 3:46 PM

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