For the record: don’t read this. If you are not familiar with the story of the Dunbars, it is best to just let this one unfold as you watch it.
Whether it is the smoking Twin Towers, smoldering Branch Davidian compound, or the Zapruder film, we have all had our faces rubbed in some televised trauma so repeatedly that we begin to lose contact with it as something awful. Over time, traumatic events turn into spectacles, and then spectacle gives way to opinion. We know the routine. Clio Barnard’s recent documentary, The Arbor, puts its finger almost directly on the point at which this begins to happen. In a very curious way, The Arbor exposes the media process that turned its harrowing subject matter into spectacle.
The sad story of Andrea Dunbar is well known. She penned her first play at 15, named after her tough housing estate known as The Arbor. This led to two more plays about estate life, a film script, and an erratic association with the Royal Court Theatre. After a short life of heavy drinking and battered women shelters, she died at 29 after falling ill in her local pub. Andrea Dunbar left behind three children by three different fathers, and as we find in The Arbor, a legacy that is as resigned and bitter as her plays. Andrea Dunbar’s story famously picks again up as played out in the life of her first daughter, Lorraine, who was imprisoned for manslaughter after her two year old son was given a fatal dose of methadone.
Most of what happens in The Arbor isn’t news. In fact, all these stories about rape, racism, drugs, and abuse have by now become domesticated, if not routine, when we flip open the newspaper and read about housing estates. And we are familiar with Dunbar’s plays that essentially recounted her daily experiences. But Barnard brings something really startling to the table, which is the way The Arbor has been created. She simply went around and interviewed Andrea Dunbar’s children, family, and a few important people in her life. She then had actors lip-sync these interviews in staged contexts. If you weren’t aware of the process, you wouldn’t notice it, but the effect is stunning. The performances of the actors portraying Lorraine and Lisa, Dunbar’s first two children, are completely heartbreaking and full of the emotional complexities their mother left in her wake. When the film turns toward the sins of Lorraine, these channeled interviews take on an even harsher edge.
Barnard splices in archived interviews with Dunbar and her family, as well as vignettes from her plays acted out on The Arbor common ground. Taken all together, The Arbor is a tapestry that weaves together the experiences of Andrea and her family in such a way that we can really hear the complexity of this history. The terrible choices of Lorraine seem pretty black or white, but they weren’t. The resignation of Lori seems pretty pat, but it isn’t. Hearing their voices through actors bringing to life their embodied responses to their mother amplifies the sense of loss and trauma that has gotten lost in the pat spectacle of the Dunbar story. Barnard seems to have reversed the process by which all these emotional and cultural complexities got lost in the endless retelling of these stories in the media. When we watch The Arbor, staged by means of the very theater that served Andrea’s genius, it is as if we are hearing the story for the first time.