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If you've seen Alan Clarke's wonderful 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too!' (UK 1986), you'll have some idea of what to expect from 'The Arbor'. "The Arbor" is a small part of the Buttershaw Estate in South Bradford where Clarke's film was set. Clarke's film was adapted from her own play by Andrea Dunbar, a 20 year-old single mother in 1982 when the play first appeared. She had written her first play also called 'The Arbour' when she was still at school and a third, 'Shirley', in 1986 before she died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage aged just 29.
Knowledge of 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too!' will only help a little, however. This film, 'The Arbour', is part inspired by but is not an adaptation of Dunbar's play. Instead it is a form of documentary about Dunbar and her personal legacy that turns out to be mainly about the equally difficult life of her first child, Lorraine.
The film is written and directed by Clio Barnard who has Bradford connections. She visited the Buttershaw estate in 2009 and interviewed members of the extended Dunbar family and some other residents. She then borrowed the idea of hiring actors to lip-synch the recorded interviews (in A State Affair, a play by Robin Soans about the Buttershaw estate, actors spoke the words of the people Dunbar knew). Scenes with the actors were shot on the estate and in a London studio. They were edited together with two other kinds of material scenes from 'Rita, Sue . . .' and from arts and news programmes about Andrea Dunbar plus scenes from 'The Arbor' play, acted out on the 'green' on the estate.
So, what does it all mean? I'm honestly not sure. Technically it is very well put together. I found myself moved by several scenes. At other times I felt like I didn't want to watch. I think that my personal preference is for a social-realist drama, but I recognise that the approach here is very powerful. My only real problem was in the casting of George Costigan as one of the actors reading the words of one of the fathers of Andrea Dunbar's children. Costigan was 'Bob' in Rita, Sue . . . and I found this an intertextual step too far.
Clio Barnard has, I think, previously produced video installations and sometimes I felt that I was viewing an installation. I found the initial stages confusing as they moved backwards and forwards in time, but eventually the film developed a distinctive narrative line focusing on Lorraine and this made it more like a traditional documentary film.
The Arbor appears to be attracting audiences to the National Media Museum's cinemas. Bradford audiences will probably have a rather different take on the film than the London critics who celebrated its success in winning two prizes at the London Film Festival this week.
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