Precocious playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961 - 1990) spoke for the lumpen abused of her native Bradford, England; The Arbor, video artist Clio Barnard's pitch-perfect Dunbar biopic, named best documentary last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, reprises her pungent, profane voice, but from a discreet distance. Barnard revisits the foredoomed career and tragic afterlife of this slum-born, self-educated writer to electrifying effect, shooting mainly on location in Bradford, with actors lip-synched to actual recordings of the people they portray.
Barnard's reconstruction, like Dunbar's first play, written at 15, is named for the bleak housing estate, where garbage is strewn and dogs run free. The playwright grew up here, on "the toughest street in Bradford," born into a life her daughter, Lorraine, characterizes as a tumult of "swearing, cursing, and shouting" — and drinking. The Arbor's wasteland provides the alfresco setting for Barnard's restaging of scenes from Dunbar's quasi-autobiographical play, just as it served as backdrop for a mid-'80s TV documentary that, after the success of Dunbar's screenplay Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, interviewed the Bradford wunderkind in her natural habitat.
Dunbar had never been out of Yorkshire or inside a theater until The Arbor was staged at London's Royal Court Theater in 1980. Success brought disaster; she returned to Bradford, had two more children out of wedlock, and drank up her screenplay money to die at 29 of a brain hemorrhage on a barroom floor. It's a compelling story, delivered here after the fashion of British "verbatim theater," which takes trial transcripts, diaries, and other documents as the basis for factual dramas. (Indeed, Dunbar's life served as the basis for an early instance of verbatim theater, the 2000 play A State Affair.)
The blurring of reality and representation was essential to Dunbar's work, and cinema allows an additional dimension. Barnard compounds the hall of mirrors, using the text of her plays (staged as plays), with her appearance in earlier documentaries (shown as documentaries), and the oral history provided by her children. Their voices, like those of other witnesses, are given to actors — including George Costigan, once upon a time the randy male lead in Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, who stands in for one of Dunbar's lovers.
As Dunbar's plays recapitulated her life, Lorraine's life might be their sequel. A mulatto child growing up in a virulently racist environment, Lorraine tells us (through the grave, demure person of Manjinder Virk) that she wishes she had never been born. Cut to the Andrea character in The Arbor (Natalie Gavin), standing in the Arbor, insisting that she wants to keep the baby. Midway through, Barnard's Arbor becomes Lorraine's story—a horrendous saga of drugs, abuse, prostitution, and prison rendered all the more affecting for its cool, subtly discombobulated delivery. Creating a moment of communication that could never exist, there's a brief cutaway from Lorraine's recollections to the prematurely life-battered Dunbar watching one of her plays in rehearsal, as if looking down from some celestial arbor.