The Arbor (2010)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Working through the movies from Indiewire’s 100 Best Films of the 2010s that I haven’t seen.

Cast, crew, etc.

Andrea Dunbar grew up in the 80’s in ‘The Arbor’, a street in a Bradford housing estate. Or, as one character puts it, ‘the toughest street, in the toughest neighbourhood, in the toughest part of the city.’ Watching a fictionalised recreation of her childhood is like watching ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’; an animalistic fight for survival in a hostile wasteland.

But Andrea has one card to play: she has a gift for writing, and is able to channel the maelstrom around her into a series of plays, the first produced when she is only 15. She is kindof a prodigy, albeit a rough one, and shows a talent that is not only not recognised by her family and peers, but can’t save her from the hellscape she was born into either. Art, in this instance, will only provide a figurative escape.

This docu-drama of Dunbar’s life comes up with a strikingly original means to tell its story; Dunbar’s family and friends were interviewed about her life and death, and then actors were hired to play these roles, and lip sync along to what their real counterparts said. This is interspersed with actual TV footage of Dunbar, and recreations of her plays (staged, to the apparent bemusement of the locals, in the public areas of the actual housing estate where she grew up).

It is an intellectully rich combination, and serves to underline the blurring of fiction and reality that occurs with artists like Dunbar. With her work being so closely based on her actual experiences, and clearly serving as a coping mechanism, the line between both worlds must inevitably by hazy. As one critic put it: the way this film uses these different techniques to merge fact and fiction gives it a ‘hyper-real’ quality, that makes it feel very raw and immediate.

And very sad. Dunbar would be dead by age 29, her body found collapsed in a public toilet (the recreation of this is shockingly stark) after a brian haemmorage most likely brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking and drugs. The film then shifts focus to one of her daughters, Lorraine, who follows in her mother’s troubled footsteps, only without the primitive genius component.

Lorraine’s story is heartbreakingly tragic, and is narrated in an empty monotone that somehow adds to the horror. Although as a character she probably suffers a little in comparison to her mother, who was just SO compelling (the film also tones down its stylistic flourishes, in the second half). But this section makes its point; these grim environments effectively trap the people who live in them, and succeeding generations simply repeat the mistakes of the ones that came prior. It is very hard to find a way out.

‘The Arbor’ is a bit like ‘Ratcatcher’, another film I watched recently, in that it highlights a part of society that most people would rather they didn’t know about. Unless you have to face up to the reality of lives like these, it is muc easier to remain oblivious; another reason why these social problems continue in an endless cycle.

And we neglect these areas at our peril. In this instance, the loss is artistic, and one character laments how we will never get to read the plays of Dunbar’s maturity. You wonder who else might be trapped in a housing estate like this one, and what talents are going to waste.

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