In my experience, the fastest way to alter people’s behavior is to point a camera at them. The moment we know we’re being recorded, we start performing (even more than usual, that is), which is why most people’s forced smiles in staged portraits look nothing like their actual happy face. Consequently, I tend not to fully trust documentaries that purport to present unmediated reality—even those made by a towering giant of the form like Frederick Wiseman, who insists that his subjects (in such classics as High School and Welfare) behave exactly as they would were he not there. And I’ve been tremendously excited by the increasing cross-pollination of fiction and nonfiction onscreen, which has led to a number of films that could fairly be called unclassifiable—even if people inevitably insist on shoving them into one category or the other. Short of a hidden camera, true objectivity is impossible to obtain (and even then, how one edits the footage can introduce significant bias), so why not just be upfront about the artificiality?
Nobody has taken this idea further than Clio Barnard in her remarkable debut feature, The Arbor. (If the title sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because it placed No. 13 in The A.V. Club’s list of 2011’s best films. Which was too low.) On the most basic level, the film is a portrait of Andrea Dunbar, a Yorkshire playwright (best known for Rita, Sue And Bob Too) whose work was intensely autobiographical, and whose death at age 29 from a brain hemorrhage left behind a tragically messed-up daughter, Lorraine, whose own life story could easily fuel multiple harrowing movies-of-the-week. But Barnard’s particular method of portraiture, while not completely unprecedented, has never before been employed to such a dizzying level of representational complexity. If you don’t already know what that method is, see if you can work it out just by watching this brief clip, in which Lorraine and her half-sister, Lisa, relate a childhood memory of being trapped in their shared bedroom while a mattress fire blazed out of control.
One might reasonably guess that these are two real women playing fictionalized versions of themselves (a not uncommon ploy over the past couple decades, especially in films from Iran), or that we’re seeing actors recreate actual interviews. In fact, Barnard has split the film right down the middle: The soundtrack is pure documentary, the images entirely fictional. Professional thesps Manjinder Virk and Christine Bottomley are lip-syncing to recorded statements by Lorraine and Lisa, respectively. For fun, I’ve tried to turn that into a reveal, but Barnard, to her credit, tells viewers immediately, in a title card that precedes the first scene (this one). Our awareness that we’re watching actors, heightened further by Barnard’s lushly stylized visuals, competes for mental purchase with our knowledge that we’re hearing the voices of the actual subjects, creating a productive sense of cognitive dissonance—a weird push-pull on the emotions and intellect, in which it’s difficult either to empathize strongly or to remain coolly detached. Pretty impressive for a device that’s previously been utilized mostly for comedy, as in the classic Aardman Animation short “Creature Comforts” and the popular Funny Or Die series “Drunk History.”
As brilliantly as the technique works throughout the film, however—in addition to Lorraine and Lisa, there are a dozen or more other interview subjects, juxtaposed with performed excerpts from Dunbar’s plays and archival footage of Dunbar herself—it’s in this opening scene that I find it most revelatory. In part, that’s just because it prominently features Bottomley (the pregnant blonde), whose ability to replicate precisely every single movement of Lisa’s mouth, including even that glottal hiccup on the word “matches,” while still giving a magnificently expressive performance never fails to dazzle me. (With Virk and the other actors, I can often see the disconnect; with Bottomley I doubt I’d ever have guessed. She’s uncanny.) But it’s also because this is one of only two instances in The Arbor in which Barnard combines what were clearly separate interviews into a single scene, and that additional layer of abstraction (with neither speaker acknowledging the other’s presence, even as they discuss the same memory, standing side by side in its dreamlike recreation) makes the alienation effect more powerful still.
Consider how this dual recollection would play had it been part of an ordinary talking-head doc. Lorraine and Lisa remember the event in crucially different ways: Lisa thinks the inside door handle came off by accident (perhaps because she herself had unscrewed it with a knife—“just bein’ mad kids”), while Lorraine, who harbors a hefty lingering grudge against their mother, is certain that Andrea deliberately removed it in order to turn their bedroom into a makeshift jail cell, so she could write in peace. (If you didn’t guess, that’s “Andrea” we briefly see at work when Lorraine pokes her head into the master bedroom down the hall—a pointedly silent performance throughout.) Cutting back and forth between Lorraine in one location and Lisa in another would encourage a simple she-said/she-said response, leaving us to wonder which version is the truth. Reconstructing the interviews so that the sisters are present in their childhood bedroom simultaneously, each staring straight ahead as the fire burns behind them, suggests instead that the truth is fundamentally unknowable, and that memories can be engineered. Heady stuff, but presented in the least didactic way imaginable; the ideas sneak up on you, as they should.
So here’s the million-dollar question: Is The Arbor a documentary? If I had shown you this scene with no preamble (and you hadn’t detected the lip-syncing), would you have anticipated filing the DVD on the fiction or nonfiction shelf? Would discovering that the voices are those of real people, talking about their actual lives, change your decision? Aren’t people just as likely to perform, in some sense, for a tape recorder as they are for a camera, knowing that they’re speaking “on the record”? That The Arbor manages to raise all of these thorny questions in its first five minutes alone makes it, for my money, one of the most important meditations on the documentary form ever made, regardless of whether you believe it qualifies as an example of the form itself. (For the record, most critics seem to have settled on “Sure it does”; The Arbor placed third and second for Best Documentary, respectively, in the two big year-end surveys, by Indiewire and the Village Voice.) If nothing else, it ensures that I’ll remain skeptical about docs—like, say, The Interrupters, which won both of those surveys—in which people on the street never seem to so much as glance at the camera… almost as if they were trained actors themselves.