Suggesting a condensed version of Michael Apted’s Up! documentary series, The Arbor paints a lurid, complex portrait of the very young English playwright Andrea Dunbar and her now-grown, mixed-race child Lorraine. With the use of interviews and taped recordings of family members and friends, director Cilo Barnard reconstructs a vivid, rippling world where a mother’s internal turmoil has a lasting effect on her children, coming off as tactfully artificial yet devastatingly authentic; Barnard hired actors to mouth and mimic the recorded interviews of family members and staged locations similar to those in West Yorkshire, England, lived in by the Dunbars, generating a heightened, elevated relational impact within these theatrical modes, while still maintaining the validity of the documented, spoken words of the actual Dunbar family. The actors don’t exactly perform reenactments of the events recited in the interviews, but rather face the camera head-on—as if they were the interviewees themselves.
Beginning with the image of two emaciated dogs rummaging through a small field for loose rubbish, the film introduces us to the suburban housing estate known as Bafferton Arbor. The camera soon reveals a young Pakistani woman, Lorraine, in the upstairs window as she speaks of a tumultuous event from her childhood in great detail, followed by a pregnant young white woman, Lisa, who continues on with the story as she walks up to the stairs of the same house to meet Lorraine, her sister, in the bedroom. The sordid web that tangles these two sisters’ lives is revealed as the two recall, from their opposing points of view, the same tragic event involving a house fire; it’s a perplexing but affecting moment that leads one to believe this home may not have been the ideal place to grow up in. We learn about their mother not long after, when Lorraine plays a DVD of an old BBC profile on the then-15-year-old playwright, who conveys a remarkably mature understanding of the world and people around her.
A unique brand of storytelling, The Arbor is revelatory in how it manages to capture the essence of its subjects, unconventionally piecing together the tumultuous lives of the Dunbars by running the gamut of documentary and narrative-film representation. The only time we actually see the real family members is via the BBC profile; one sweet, reflective moment finds Andrea collapsing Lorraine’s baby carriage as the two hop on the metro. Barnard also stages a version of Dunbar’s first play The Arbor outdoors in a suburban neighborhood, which she intermittently cuts back to—illustrating Dunbar’s profound talents as a writer. Though damning in its depiction of Andrea, the film finely dissects her trajectory from gifted, young writer to a raging alcoholic and neglectful mother, eerily transforming into a character she may very well have written herself.
The film’s themes become clear in its second half, when the spotlight moves over to Lorraine and her subsequent drug addiction and isolation. The film highlights the generational ramifications of mother Dunbar’s sometimes racist mistreatment and psychological abuse; at times, she completely abandoned Loraine and her other two kids for numerous, nightly pub-crawls. Lorraine speaks of her own downward spiral into drug use and jail time, which is torturous to hear but painfully true to life; the director never once hides the gruesome details, and neither does Lorraine in her interviews. A risky experiment, The Arbor transcends the staginess of the style, allowing the emotional, hard-going times of a talented girl and her consequential madness to ring shockingly genuine.
The Arbor will play on April 25, 26, 28, and May 1 as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For more information click here.