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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Film - The Arbor - directed by Clio Barnard

Star rating – 8/10

This is the impossibly sad tale of the life and family of young Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who lived in the roughest part of the notorious Buttershaw estate in Bradford and whose plays ended up being performed at the Royal Court, before being turned into the film ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too!’. Andrea Dunbar died aged 29 of a brain haemorrhage, a tragic end to a life filled with promise but thwarted by alcoholism.

It is also very much the story of Dunbar’s family and friends, and the lives they led following her early death. It is a sorry tale of drug addiction, unemployment, and most of all of a lack of hope for much better. Director Clio Barnard very cleverly uses actors to lip synch the words spoken by the actual people involved. This sounds an odd concept but it works brilliantly. The identify and dignity of those involved is protected, and the actors, particularly Manjinder Virk as Lorraine, are all brilliant. The action also involves scenes from Dunbar’s plays being acted out on the green in the middle of the Arbor, surrounded by the current residents as onlookers.

Andrea obviously had an addictive personality of a kind, using alcohol and bad relationships as a crutch to escape the reality of her life with three children to bring up and not much in the way of parenting skills or real love to offer them, at least not to her eldest daughter Lorraine. Even Andrea’s unusual contact (for Buttershaw at any rate) with middle class culture in the form of the theatre people she met could not save her from the spiral of despair that led to her being in the pub more than at home, leaving her children to fend for themselves or be cared for by the neighbours.

And Lorraine herself follows her mother’s cycle of addiction after she loses her aged 10. Lorraine is mixed race in a community of die hard racists. When a small girl, she has heard her mother tell a friend that she wishes she had never had her, and that she loves her less than her other children, and never gets over the devastation which that lack of love brings. Her life becomes a desperate cycle of drug taking, prostitution, and abuse in unsuitable relationships, until the final tragedy when she is sent to prison for the manslaughter of her two year old son who dies from a methadone overdose. The saddest part of the film is listening to the foster parents grieving for the little boy, and the love they were able to give to Andrea’s children and this baby without wanting anything in return.

This is a very hard film to watch. It is in no way sentimental about Dunbar or her family. It pulls no punches. It is particularly hard for someone like myself who works in the social housing sector to watch without asking some very fundamental questions about how communities come to this; how professional intervention has often failed; and to wonder what the coming regime of cuts and austerity will mean for communities like Buttershaw and people like Andrea and Lorraine Dunbar. Social exclusion is more than a buzz phrase for housing professionals and community workers. If you are not sure what it means – just go and see this film.

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