Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dunbar & Daughter: The Arbor

At the age of fifteen, Andrea Dunbar’s first play debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Thirteen years later, she was dead, a victim of the self-destructive behavior she chronicled in her dramas. The lasting effects of her deficiencies as a mother are illustrated in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (trailer here), a radically self-conscious departure from traditional documentary forms that won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best New Documentary Filmmaker Award almost a year ago to the day, which opens tomorrow in New York at Film Forum.

Deliberating blurring documentary and dramatic filmmaking, Barnard recorded extensive interviews with the Dunbar’s family and friends. However, instead of showing them on camera, she filmed a cast of actors lip-synching their spoken words. She also staged a production of Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, in an open space near the low income housing estate that inspired the playwright’s work. Barnard’s only bow to convention are clips from a BBC profile of Dunbar interspersed throughout the film.

Obviously, Dunbar’s plays were largely based on her experiences and observations of life on the Bafferton Arbor Estate. However, the theatricality of Barnard’s approach completely blurs any distinction between author and character. As biography, this might be problematic, but as cinema, it is strangely engrossing.

It quickly becomes apparent Dunbar was never mother of the year. While her son and younger daughter might have survived her parenting with relatively few emotional scars that was clearly not the case for Lorraine, her bi-racial eldest daughter. Unfortunately, as Arbor shifts its focus to Lorraine, its unorthodox format loses some of its power. While Andrea Dunbar was a true enfant terrible of British drama, Lorraine’s story is hardly remarkable. She might be a tragic figure, but she is hardly the first to succumb to drug addiction as a result of a chaotic family environment.

Though it is often devilishly difficult for Yankee ears to decipher the thick Yorkshire accents, it is often hard to tell the cast is lip-synching. Indeed, their mannerisms and body language seems perfectly matched to their disembodied words, with Manjinder Virk particularly convincing as the problematic Lorraine.

Given the intentionally artificial nature of Arbor, it arguably pushes its luck, running a bit longer than it should. Still, it represents filmmaking that legitimately takes risks. In fact, it is probably the fullest, most successful manifestation of post-modernism in documentary filmmaking. Recommended for Ken Loach and Mike Leigh audiences, Arbor opens tomorrow (4/27) at Film Forum.