Film director Clio Barnard is one of most significant new voices in contemporary British cinema. Before making her formally experimental debut feature The Arbor, a film about the short life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (in which actors lip-synched to audio interviews with Dunbar’s family and friends), Barnard worked in the visual arts; she has shown her work at MoMA and Tate. Her most recent feature, The Selfish Giant, a story about two boys, Arbor and Swifty, who are drawn into collecting scrap metal with horse and cart, was the breakthrough British film at Cannes 2013, much as McQueen’s Hunger had been in 2008. She talks to Maria Dimitrova about her work process, her distrust of realism and the pull to documentary.
MARIA DIMITROVA You used to work predominantly with art installation. How did the turn to film come about?
CLIO BARNARD I studied fine arts and have a visual arts background but I used film from pretty early on. To begin with, I was using a handheld camera to record my charcoal drawings and that’s how I got into making films, whether it was for gallery installations or experimental single-screen work. I guess the big leap for me, however, was making The Arbor. It was done through Artangel, they did this initiative called the Artangel Open, where anyone can put an idea in. I submitted this idea for Andrea Dunbar and that was probably the most ambitious piece of work I’d attempted at that point.
MD Tell me about the technique, a hybrid between documentary and theatre. Where does the documentary impulse in your cinema stem from?
CB In a way, it was about questioning documentary, really. I made a film in 1998 where I used this technique of lip-synching the voices I’d gathered in an interview. Then, when I read Andrea Dunbar’s plays years later, even though I never really had a background in theatre, I was intrigued that she used a similar technique, of gathering voices in interviews and then constructing the text out of those interviews. It was a kind of documentary theatre, emphasising how theatre is constructed by actors who speak the words of somebody else. I think we have this expectation of documentary to deliver the truth in some way, but of course that’s a really difficult thing to do. So I was interested in using that technique to explore how tricky authenticity is.
MD I read that actors had to learn speech pauses in order to reproduce the real interviews as closely as possible in the film. Did you in a way still want to stay close to the original, or did you perhaps want to emphasise the artificiality and put the viewer at a distance?
CB It was more of a distancing technique, the kind used in Andrea Dunbar’s play The Arbor, where there’s a character named “Girl” who’s essentially Andrea. She uses direct address to the audience to make them aware that they’re watching a re-telling of the true story, that you can never watch the true story. I see the lip-synching as a similar technique. It was an experiment, and some people have said it makes them listen in a slightly different way. So I think it does a simultaneous thing of pulling you in and pushing you out. I mean, I hope it doesn’t stop an audience from engaging with the subject matter, because I care passionately about subject matter. It’s not just about experimenting with form: I want the two things to somehow meld.
MD How do you find your subjects?
CB The Selfish Giant grew out of The Arbor, because when we were making it there were a lot of children around the set. I did workshops in the school before I started making the film to get to know the place and the people, and I met a boy called Matty there; the character Arbor [from The Selfish Giant] is based on him. There was something about his kind of volatility, his restlessness.
MD People compare you to other social realist filmmakers; Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Ken Loach are the most frequent references. Do you see yourself as working in a similar vein or being part of that genre?
CB It’s not a direct intention – in some ways The Arbor critiques social realism and I suppose The Selfish Giant in some way embraces it. That was partly because I was interested in other films, like The Kid with a Bike or The 400 Blows, that have a child at the centre of them, simple, fable-like tales. The aspiration was to try and tell a very simple story but one that, if you scratch and dig around in it, it becomes more complex.
MD You juxtapose this coming-of-age tale and beautiful images of British landscape with scrapyards, entropic industrial wastelands, inhabited by scrap men and scrap children. Are these juxtapositions politically charged?CB I hope that when people see it, they understand that there’s some political context for it, about children who are pushed to the margins and exploited in some way. Especially with working-class teenage boys, they often get blamed for something that is a socio-economic problem, which, I believe, they are actually victims of.
MD There was an almost naturalistic tendency in the film, with the opaque presence of the rubbish defining and defying the plot progression.
CB The reason for including all the scrap metal and stuff is because, really, it’s based on observation. I actually wanted to include an explicit documentary element within the film, so for two or three days we went out and filmed kids scrapping in Bradford and got some brilliant footage. Initially we included it in the film, but it didn’t work because it meant that you couldn’t engage with Arbor and Swifty, the boy protagonists, and what was going on emotionally for them. I was disappointed because my big anxiety with the film the whole way through was that it might seem romanticised or nostalgic – it needed to be grounded in reality, so that people knew it wasn’t just some flight of fancy of mine. But the documentary footage just didn’t work, so maybe it will be on the DVD extras. Still, it was fascinating for me to learn that, even in a roundabout, quietly frustrating way.
MD Tell me about the title. How did Wilde’s fable come into the film? It didn’t really seem like a direct adaptation, and there have been different interpretations of who the giant is.
CB I had an idea in the back of my head for a long time that I wanted to do this contemporary adaptation of Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” because it was a tale about excluded children, and children whom we might idealise because of the distance of time. Re-telling it, I was curious to imagine what it would be like if they were children now, the contemporary children who were around the set the whole time we were making The Arbor. I did deliberate for a long time about whether it was the right title; I thought about alternatives, but I just kept coming back to it. I also like that it prompts varied interpretations because, in some ways, I don’t really believe in realism.
MD In what way?
CB Because stories don’t really happen that way. You could tell a story in a million different ways from a million different points of view. It’s never fixed. We interpret our experience through stories, but it’s very risky to believe in them. I like that it makes it explicit that it’s not real, and it’s not authentic, even though it may be based on observation. The other thing I found appealing about the fable is the word “selfish” because, in story terms, Kitten is selfish, and Arbor chooses him as a role model in a kind of absence of other role models, and that’s what gets them into such trouble. When Thatcher died, Glenda Jackson made this very brilliant speech saying that under Thatcher selfishness and greed, instead of being vices, became virtues. We knew the price of everything, the value of nothing. And I think, in a way, the film is about a selfish ideology that permeates and is incredibly destructive.
MD What’s next for you?
CB Somebody came to me with a novel and asked if I’d be interested in making a screen adaptation of it. It’s called Trespass and it's by Rose Tremain. Writing an adaptation of a novel is a new thing for me – it’s fascinating, the process is quite different from my previous screenplays. There it was much more about observing and editing and I guess this is about reading and editing. And it's not set in Bradford, so yes, it’s a bit of a departure. §