Clio Barnard is a British director of documentary and feature film. She grew up in the town of Otley in Yorkshire. Her father was a lecturer and her mother was an artist who later became a jazz singer. She has been hailed as a significant new voice in British cinema for her first feature film The Selfish Giant (2013). Building on the award winning success of The Arbor in 2010, which was described as an ‘experimental documentary’. It was the story of the working class Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar who died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29 and who was described by Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius from the slums’. Best known for her novel Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which most of you will remember was adapted into a film in 1986 and directed by Alan Clarke. Dunbar lived in a rundown council estate in Bradford Yorkshire. At the age of 15 while still at school she was encouraged to write her first play also called The Arbor after Brafferton Arbor, a street where her family lived. The film uses actors performing lip-synching to pre-recorded interviews with Andrea, her family and friends. It’s a technique known as ‘verbatim theatre’ a process the director described as “to create a deliberate gap between reality and representation or at least make you aware of the gap”. The film raised the social issues introduced in her writings with all there raw emotions. Most striking parts of this “documentary” were the ones performed in the grounds of the Buttershaw estate surrounded by actual tenants. The movie is uncomfortably realistic and certainly not a relaxing watch, but well worth the effort.
It was during the filming of The Arbor that Clio Barnard got the inspiration for tonight’s film. She tells us in an interview ‘there a local lad called Matty (a boy who had been scrapping since the age of eleven) who was around the set a lot and he had a horse that he would ride through the set, which was not very helpful. The film is very much inspired by him and his relationship with his best friend. The pair of them was working for somebody who there was a real ambiguity about, whether he was exploiting them or whether he was giving them opportunities. He became the selfish giant of the title. So there were two staring points, a very loose adaptation of a Victorian fairy tale by Oscar Wilde and meeting the boy Matty and somehow bringing these two things together.
Barnard has been accused of bringing fresh sensibility to British Loachian social realism. The film has been likened to Ken's 1969 classic Kes but I would suggest The Navigators (2001) or perhaps Lynn Ramsey’s Ratcatcher (1999) its not merely a kitchen sink drama but an examination of the foul smelling, leaky plumbing work beneath. As I’ve pointed out it was inspired by an Oscar Wilde's Victorian short story, a symbolic representation of the blooming of England’s dead garden, which features a giant who hates children and bans them from his garden. The writer-director Clio Barnard employs this parable as a metaphor for contemporary Britain, where the wealthy reside in their guarded, gated communities while the poor live beyond the fence.
Once again filmed on the Bradford Estate this contemporary realist fairy tale concerning what Tony Blair termed "feral kids" - those that are excluded from school and who survive on the streets. Yet its roots lie a few decades earlier, when kids played on post-war bombsites before the days of community parks, never a suitable alternatives but much more fun. This film's protagonists are two such children. Arbor is skinny and sharp, while Swifty is bigger and slow. They find friendship in each other, since the latter saves the former from being bullied and, inevitably, due to their misdemeanors they get excluded from their school which virtually gives up on the boys and like many children of there age feel they don’t belong and a ‘caring community’ that should be a safety net is non existent.
|Arbor (Conner Chapman)|
|Swifty (Shaun Thomas)|
This weeks Robert Burns Centre Film Club audience was bowled over by the emotional power of the two young lads who played the lead parts, both never having any previous experience of acting, the13 year old Conner Chapman who plays Arbor was plucked from the local school while 15 year old Shaun Thomas was given the part of Swifty because of his natural skill with horses.
Peter Bradshaw claims that ‘crusading social realism may have long since ceased to be fashionable in Britain’s theatres and television drama, but in the cinema the flame stubbornly continues to burn’. For example films like Sweet Sixteen (2002), Fish Tank (2009) and Ratcatcher (1999) all depictions of social deprivation from the point of view of children and teenagers. With Mark Kermode opining. ‘Barnard’s version is more political (than Wilde’s short story with its religious overtones) a portrait of a post industrial landscape in which selfishness has become an ideology, with children once again marginalized to devastating effect’.
Who or what is the giant of Barnard’s story, Kitten (Sean Gilder), the massive power pylon that seems to stand guard over its ‘treasures’ or is it the formless shadow of Thatcherite greed that lurks in the background of Barnard’s (accurately) written script?
It’s a film that hold’s up a mirror to reality and how families, with their worried mothers and useless male role models, suffer under a shameful austerity plan, which introduced legal loan sharks, social security spies and bullying bailiffs. A brilliant, but harrowing, social realist film that is a sign of the changing times and shows how divided modern day Britain has become, with film critic Jeff Sewall commenting that the film should be ‘compulsory viewing to all those self-seeking politicians who promote the "big society" or "one nation" theories’.
 The Arbor (2010) won several awards including Best New Documentary Filmmaker at Tribeca Film Festival New York, Best Newcomer and Sutherland Awards at The London Film Festival, Douglas Hickox Award at British Independent Film Awards, The Guardian First Film Award, Best Screenplay at the London Evening Standard Film Awards, the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival Innovation Award and the Jean Vigo Award for Best Direction at Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival. She was nominated for the BAFTA Outstanding Debut Award in February 2011.
 Sundance NOW Interview.
 Kate Muir Sight & Sound November 2013.
 Mark Kermode The Observer Review.