Raised in a housing project in Bradford, Yorkshire, British playwright Andrea Dunbar was only 15 when her first semi-autobiographical work, The Arbor, attracted attention by expressing her hardscrabble life with authentic grit and dark humor. Her screenplay for Alan Clarke’s 1987 film Rita, Sue And Bob Too! brought her to a wider audience, but her career was cut short three years later when she died from a brain hemorrhage at age 29. She left behind three children with three different fathers, each of them dealing with sour memories of their mother and a crippling legacy of poverty, neglect, sexual abuse, and substance addiction. The most troubled of the three, Lorraine Dunbar, was convicted of manslaughter in 2007 for gross neglect in the accidental death of her 2-year-old son.
Clio Barnard’s innovative docu-fiction The Arbor brings the Dunbar story to life through a technique known as “verbatim theater,” in which actors lip-synch testimony from the real people they’re portraying. (The effect is akin to a live-action “Creature Comforts.”) Though the synching is remarkably close to unnoticeable, the style takes some getting used to, mainly because The Arbor isn’t dramatized like films with actors generally are. The scenes are more like eerie tableaux where the “characters” tell their stories straight to the camera, wandering the haunted backdrop of Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate and other settings. This ingenious conceit, borrowed from Robin Soans’ 2000 play on Dunbar, called A State Affair, solves the longstanding problem of documentaries penned in by static talking heads.
It helps that the actors’ faces are so mesmerizing, particularly Manjinder Virk as Lorraine, who was only 10 when her mother died, but has bitter memories of her alcoholism, her disregard for her children (who were locked in their rooms until she was ready for them), and her specific contempt for Lorraine as a mixed-race child. Lorraine’s tales of rape, heroin addiction, prostitution, and other horrors from as early as 14 are interwoven with staged scenes from Dunbar’s plays, making the connection between one tragic life and another agonizingly clear. The Arbor complicates Lorraine’s testimony with that of her siblings and foster parents, leaving the question of where inheritance ends and personal responsibility begins. It’s a vicious cycle not easily broken.