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Indie Focus: 'The Arbor' puts words in actors' mouths

In the documentary about playwright Andrea Dunbar, performers lip-sync interviews by the film's subjects.

May 08, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Clio Barnard, director of the movie "The Arbor."
Clio Barnard, director of the movie "The Arbor." (Strand Releasing )

It may be unusual to speak of an actor's performance in a documentary, but "The Arbor" is no ordinary documentary. For her debut feature, director Clio Barnard has created a heady work that revives the legacy of the once-promising young British playwright Andrea Dunbar, in part through the experiences of Dunbar's daughter Lorraine, while examining the patterns of behavior that pass from one generation to the next.

Actress Manjinder Virk brings a haunting emotional depth to the real-life words of Lorraine, lip-syncing to audio interviews conducted by Barnard. The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, begins as a look at Andrea Dunbar, who emerged from the rough streets of Bradford with plays that were searing depictions of the struggles of the working class while brimming with the unruly vibrancy of life.

Dunbar wrote her debut play, "The Arbor," longhand in green ink as a teenager before she had ever set foot in a theater; it was first produced in 1980. Her second play, 1982's "Rita, Sue and Bob Too," was later made into a film by director Alan Clarke, from a script by Dunbar. Her hardscrabble life, including alcohol abuse and three children by three men, took its toll, and she died at age 29 in 1990 from a brain hemorrhage while in a pub.

Since the film premiered last year, "The Arbor" has received wide recognition, including a BAFTA award nomination and numerous debut filmmaker prizes, including at the British Independent Film Awards and the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Barnard, 46, a teacher of film studies at the University of Kent, interviewed Lorraine as well as Andrea Dunbar's other children, family members and artistic collaborators, recording only audio. She then cast actors to lip-synch along to the recordings for the film, a technique that at first may seem jarring, but which quickly brings a heightened sense of drama. The film also features scenes from Dunbar's "The Arbor" performed in the streets of the neighborhood it was written about and titled after, with a mixture of actors and nonprofessional locals.

"I see the lip-synching as a form of direct address, to remind you that you're watching the retelling of a true story," Barnard said recently by phone from England. "It's really important to remember it's something being retold so that you're vigilant that it's not an act of truth-telling. Lorraine sees it very differently from the way [her sister] Lisa sees it, and Lorraine might remember it one way one time and another way next time."

It speaks to the film's complex construction that even the question of whether "The Arbor" is a documentary or a fiction film is thrown into play by Barnard's decisions on how to create the film.

"Part of making it this way is about raising that question, what the similarities are between fiction and documentary," Barnard said. "Overall I would say it's a documentary, but I guess that's what I deliberately wanted to do, to make people think about it. It's obvious really that documentaries are always mediated and often have a similar narrative structure to a fiction film, that something has always been left out, choices have always been made."

For Virk, Barnard's technique posed a particular challenge, how to breathe life into words she would not actually be speaking with her own breath. With the interviews edited into something of an audio script, Virk downloaded onto an iPod the recordings of Lorraine Dunbar talking and then, "I basically listened to her all the time. I almost had to stop listening to what she was saying, because that would really be quite sad, so I had to listen to it like a piece of music, learn it for every breath, every pause and the rhythm of how she was speaking.

"So it was very technical at first and when I thought I really had it I had to let it go and find the emotional context of what was going on behind it and actually find the story more as a traditional way of approaching the script as an actor."

But Virk didn't regard the audio track as a straightjacket; rather, she found keeping up with the recordings of Lorraine Dunbar an exciting challenge. Though it didn't allow for improvisation in what was said, she said she felt in tune with Lorraine.

"I have to say, you are more in the moment than anything," Virk said. "You have to be because you can't think ahead, you have to listen to exactly what's going on at that point."

Barnard's initial interest was less in revisiting the work of Andrea Dunbar than in exploring the ongoing representations of Dunbar's neighborhood — Barnard grew up not far from there. She was spurred on in part by the play "A State Affair," which featured a monologue transcribed from Lorraine Dunbar. The film's structure, which subtly slides its focus from mother to daughter, makes it less a historical biopic and more a film that connects past to the present.

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