The Arbor (2010)

A groundbreaking dramatised documentary about the troubled lives of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too!) and her daughters, with actors lip-synching authentic interviews.

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“Fact rubs up against fiction and vice versa. It’s compelling and stimulating, keeping you on your feet but never distancing you from the story at its heart.”
Dave Calhoun, Time Out, 2010

Clio Barnard’s extraordinary debut feature is ostensibly a documentary about the turbulent lives of playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990) and the daughters who have to deal with her literary and genetic legacy. But that bald description reveals nothing about Barnard’s approach. Inspired by ‘verbatim theatre’ but taking the concept a stage further, she has actors miming to recordings of the real people they’re portraying, intercut with scenes from Dunbar’s own semi-autobiographical plays: The Arbor (1980) and Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1982).

Barnard’s meticulous, often symbolic compositions suggest a detached arts-documentary treatment – a bed quietly bursts into flames as Dunbar’s daughters reminisce about methods of keeping warm when locked into their bedroom while their mother was at the pub – but this is wrenchingly powerful stuff, especially when the film brings Dunbar’s half-Pakistani daughter Lorraine centre stage and reveals a shockingly tragic life that could have been straight from one of her mother’s plays.

Errol Morris’s documentaries The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) take a similarly cool, probing approach. Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1987) was filmed by Alan Clarke.

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