Podcast with Clio Barnard, multiple award-winning British Film writer, director and producer, in conversation with Khalid Ali, film and media correspondent
In this podcast, Clio Barnard is in conversation with Khalid Ali revisiting her ‘Bradford Film Trilogy’; The Arbor (2010), The Selfish Giant (2013), and Ali & Ava (2021). The troubled life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar and her plays, and the film Rita, Sue, and Bob too (Alan Clarke, UK, 1987) were the inspiration for The Arbor an experiment of hybrid filmmaking where actors lip-synched to recorded interviews of Clio with Andrea Dunbar’s family and contemporaries. The authenticity of narrative and representation in documentary film were challenged and reimagined in The Arbor. An ideology of greed in a post-Thatcher Yorkshire background depicted in a children’s fable based on an Oscar Wilde’s story was the backbone for The Selfish Giant. The uniqueness and diversity of Bradford community portrayed as a love story between two unlikely characters made Ali and Ava a film celebrating love, friendship, forgiveness, and hope.
Listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.
The Arbor (2010) available on Amazon Prime
A hybrid documentary/ fictional film revisiting the turbulent life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar through archival footage of her, interviews with her daughter Lorraine, and a recreation of her play The Arbor in Buttershaw council estate where she grew.
The Selfish Giant (2013) available on Amazon Prime
Inspired by an Oscar Wilde’s story, and real life characters from Bradford, the film follows Arbor (Connor Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) two ostracised teenagers trying to make money from stealing scrap metal. Their friendship is tested when they are exploited by Kitten (Sean Gilder) a local shady dealer.
Ali & Ava (2021) available on Netflix
Also set in Bradford, Ali (Adeel Akhbar), a kind Muslim landlord stuck in a broken marriage, meets Ava (Claire Rushbrook) a lonely school teacher yearning for love after separating from an abusive x-husband. With demanding intrusive families, and different lifestyles and backgrounds, Ali and Ava are unlikely to end up together, or are they?
KHALID ALI: Hello. Welcome to this new edition of Medical Humanities Podcast series. This is Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent at Medical Humanities Journal, and it’s a great pleasure to have with me today Clio Barnard, acclaimed film director, writer, producer. Welcome to this podcast, Clio. It will be great if you can tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a filmmaker.
CLIO BARNARD: Well, yeah. Thank you very much for inviting me on. And yeah, I came to filmmaking really via art school. So, I started making records of my drawings with 16mm, this beautiful 16mm Bolex film camera, and I was doing a lot of charcoal drawings and wanted to make a record of them as they changed. So, that was really my introduction to film and kind of got me hooked on celluloid, I suppose.
ALI: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great introduction to the world of film and storytelling, but through a different medium. I know that you grew up in Yorkshire. Why Bradford in particular? How it has become a regular backdrop for three of the films we’re going to talk about today.
BARNARD: Oh, well, yeah. As you said, grew up near there. And really, it was the playwright Andrea Dunbar who drew me back there. I really love the work of Alan Clarke, and he made a film called Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which was an adaptation of two of her plays.
BARNARD: And I picked up a copy of her play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too. And it had been reprinted with a play called A State Affair, written by Robin Soans that had been produced by Max Stafford-Clark’s company, who are called Out of Joint, who’d come back to Buttershaw a decade on from Andrea’s death and two decades on from when Rita, Sue and Bob Too was written. And really, it kind of took stock in a way of what had changed in that very specific place where Andrea grew up and wrote, the place that she wrote about since over the last, well, through the ‘80s and through the ‘90s. And in a way, what I wanted to do was go back a third time and look at what had changed another decade on and also reflect on those previous representations of the Buttershaw Estate.
ALI: Yes. So, if you could share with the listeners a bit about Andrea Dunbar, the British playwright. She started writing at a very young age while she was still at school at the age of 15. But she had what we can call a turbulent, very difficult life growing up in the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford: a lot of adolescent angst, grew up in a deprived community, a lot of domestic violence in the background. She had far from your standard protective family, if we may say. So, her life was full of challenges and contradictions, but she translated that into, started that into creative writing. And her play was adapted into a theatre in London. So, that particular character, so the attraction to, was it the film which drew you to explore her life, Andrea Dunbar, or the story or the themes? Tell us more about your fascination, if I may say, with marginalized characters as such.
BARNARD: Well, in some ways, at that stage, I was, I suppose, as interested in the way marginalized communities might be represented on screen and on stage. And I guess I was as interested in that as much as I was interested in her.
BARNARD: So, but I kind of, I suppose I had this plan or idea about exploring the place and how it had been represented. She had been asked to write something when she was 15 at school. It was a piece of homework. And her teacher, I suppose, recognized her talent and sent her work into I think it was BBC television
BARNARD: And it was recognized, it was picked up, and then it was sent into the Royal Court Young Writers Festival, kind of by other people, in a way, recognizing that she was very talented. And it was put on, the first part of The Arbor, her play. The Arbor, the first act of it was staged in that festival. And then I think Max Stafford-Clark saw that and asked her to write a second act. And that was how The Arbor became to be in the theatre. The first act of that play is about her experience of getting pregnant when she was 15. And as you say, she came from a difficult family. I think it’s fair to say that her father was an alcoholic, and I think it’s fair to say that he was abusive.
BARNARD: And she wrote about that very honestly and straightforwardly and with real, I don’t know, she had an absolute ear for dialogue. You know, she could remember almost verbatim what had been said by who. And yeah. And then she was commissioned then to write the second half of the play, by which time she was living in a battered women’s hostel in Keighley. And the second half of the play really deals with the birth of her first child and an abusive relationship that she was then in with the child’s father.
ALI: Yeah. We know later on that actually, her life was very difficult. She had a difficult progression in life as an artist but as a woman, a single, almost a single parent, three children from three different fathers. And that’s what you have portrayed in your film, The Arbor in 2010. And you focused on her difficult relationship with one of her daughters who later on as well had a very difficult life with having fell pregnant, and then her child died of an accidental overdose. And then she was in prison. So, there was that mother-daughter relationship was quite clear in your film. So, was that something that you wanted, again, to share with an audience? And then we’ll come to talk about the process of how you translated that into film.
BARNARD: I wanted to go back and look at the last 30 years of the way this particular place had been represented by her and then by this play by Robin Soans, Verbatim play. And I was also interested in what the complications of verbatim and inauthenticity and all of that.
BARNARD: I knew I wanted to speak to Lorraine, who is her eldest daughter, because of her words in A State Affair, which ends that play. They’re very powerful. And so, I knew I wanted to speak to Lorraine, but I didn’t know what had happened to her in the 10 years since A State Affair.
ALI: And she was sent to prison after that, wasn’t she?
BARNARD: She was. She went to prison, yeah. And she, so, in a way, I then went and conducted these interviews with lots of different people who knew Andrea. And through that, and including her sister, and through that, understood how autobiographical the plays were. I didn’t realize quite how autobiographical The Arbor was until I did those interviews. And the interview with Lorraine was very central, I suppose, to understanding something about Andrea, but also, I think understanding something about cycles of deprivation and cycles of what it means when we marginalize people and the impacts of that. So, in a way, through Lorraine and Andrea, it meant that you could look at kind of 30 years of a very specific place and a very specific family, kind of through the words of people who were of that place and from that family.
ALI: Indeed. But then I’d like now to ask about the style of her presentation. So, you had a very specific idea of telling that story through a specific format. I’d like to explore with you, how did that come about? And I’d like to share, again, with the listeners the way you’ve told that specific story on film.
BARNARD: Yeah. So, what I wanted to do was take this form of theatre, which is called Verbatim theatre, and where you use the people, the voices of the real people as the text. And on stage, you know, you have to suspend your disbelief or whatever because there’s an actor there standing there telling you. So, there’s a sort of Brechtian distancing, I suppose, where you know you’re watching something that’s been constructed in a sense.
BARNARD: So, I guess I got curious about screen documentaries and also social realist film where, in a way, the idea is to collapse the gap between reality and representation. But of course, we all know that that’s impossible, really. So, I suppose what I wanted to do by taking that technique from theatre in applying it to film was to make an audience consistently aware that they were watching something which had been constructed, which feels to me to be important. Because in Andrea’s fiction, she necessarily took things out or took people out [laughing]—they become characters when you turn it into a play—because she couldn’t tell the story if they were there or, you know. So, in a similar way I wanted to make an audience aware of how—
ALI: For me, it’s like a first-hand narrative. It’s bringing that authenticity. Maybe more than just authenticity, you’re experimenting in a way in that format. But did you think that, was that an experiment that you were worried about? I have to say that it paid off in the sense that the film won major awards, several British and international film festivals, the Best Documentary Filmmakers at the Tribeca New York Film Festival, The Guardian Best First Feature Award, and the Sutherland Award at the London Film Festival. So, did your risk-taking pay dividends?
BARNARD: Well, I think the film probably came at a time when…. 2010 the Tories were back in power.
ALI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BARNARD: And it was, you know, 30 years since Margaret Thatcher. And so, I think there was something about needing to hear from people on the margins, I suppose. I think also, I think it raised some questions about documentary because of the form that I used in the film that I think were pertinent and important and that people were ready to engage with, I suppose.
ALI: Yeah, you’re here revisiting the format that I read that there was a short, Random Acts of Intimacy, that you’d used a similar approach to combining the lips syncing onto the, onto actors telling a story. What was, was there a motivation there, or you wanted to experiment and share that approach with a different? So, I’m looking into the style of the film and the approach.
BARNARD: Yeah. Formally, it was a very similar kind of experiment in a way to say because people were telling stories about their, about something that had happened in the past. And I think inevitably when you do that, as soon as you start to construct a story, you give it a beginning and a middle and an end.
BARNARD: And you might tell it completely differently the next time you tell it. So, that idea about authenticity or truth is a complicated one, and—
BARNARD: Yeah! And in some ways, I think if you highlight that whilst at the same time trying to get to it, [laughing] if you see what I mean, it seems to me you might stand a better chance.
ALI: You did definitely stand a fantastic chance of reaching out to a wider audience that connected with the content as well as the format in which it was presented. Three years later, you made another beautiful film, The Selfish Giant, 2013. It was described as a poetic and hauntingly beautiful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s story. Again, what was the attraction? You took this story, a children’s fable, but you made it again in a specific geographical location, Bradford again. Tell us about that, please.
BARNARD: Yeah, when I was making The Arbor, there was a boy called Matty Bailey. Well, he was a boy then. He’s a man now. [laughs]
BARNARD: A boy called Matty Bailey, and he had a best friend. And they would, there’s a horse that you see in the background of The Arbor when Andrea’s play The Arbor is performed on Brafferton Arbor, which is the street where she grew up. There’s a horse in the background, and that’s Matthew’s horse. And he, you know, he was really helpful. [laughs] We kind of needed to have the horse in shot or whatever. He’d sort of move the horse for us. And in fact, he was the first person that I actually met when I first went up to Bradford, to Buttershaw specifically, which was, I think it was in 2008.
BARNARD: And he was 14 at the time, and he was the first person that I met. And I got to know his family very well because they all lived on The Arbor next door to Andrea’s family.
BARNARD: And he was excluded from school, really, from quite a young age, and he went out scrapping, collecting scrap metal.
BARNARD: And he was one of many kids who was not going to secondary school and was going out collecting scrap metal. And I really wanted to tell his story or tell that story. Yeah.
ALI: But it wasn’t his particular story. Maybe the character was the inspiration, if I’m right in saying. But to you, it was that the film was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Selfish Giant. So, how did the combination come about, the real life Matty and then Arbor and Swifty, who we see in the film?
BARNARD: Yeah, you’re right. It was a combination of being inspired by a real person that I’d met and this fairy story, and in a way, wanting to put together these two seemingly incongruous things, one, which is social realism, and one which is a fairy story or fable. And I suppose it’s partly because although…although I might be considered to be a social realist filmmaker, there’s part of me that also wants to, I suppose, state the obvious, [laughs] in a way, which is that there’s no, in a way, there’s no such thing as realism. That there are different styles of filmmaking. And even though I’m very interested in combining the real or the document, what’s documented with fiction and that really fascinates me and interests me, and it is because I want to communicate something about people’s real lives. I’m also conscious that there’s always, inevitably, there’s a shaping that you shape an ending to a film. And you know, that we all tell stories, and that’s what they are. They’re stories that might be different the next time we tell them. So, it feels, to me, important to integrate those things. And this was a different way of doing that from the way that I’d done it in The Arbor.
ALI: Indeed. While the setting was again Bradford, but there was a distinctive visual aesthetic to how you told Arbor and Swifty’s story, these two marginalized young children who are, again, as you mentioned, excluded from school, went into this business, illegal trade. But there was a significant bond of friendship, loyalty within a very hostile environment, if we say. The visual style and the decision, and distinctively, there was no soundtrack to the film, if I may remember, if I remember correctly.
BARNARD: That’s right. Yeah, there was, well, there’s a very minimal score. So, Harry Escott actually is the composer who I’ve worked with on all of my feature films, and he calls it stealth composing [laughs] because—
ALI: And what is that? Educate us! [laughs]
BARNARD: It’s his made-up term, [laughing] which I really like. Which is because it’s there, but it’s very minimal and very subtle. So, you’re not, an audience isn’t—
BARNARD: —necessarily aware. But yeah, there are— So, he works quite closely with the sound designer who I work with who’s called Tim Barker to kind of put tones and sounds together. So, there’s a very specific bit where there’s a tone that kind of sets a particular atmosphere and pulls the story through in a very particular way, but I don’t ever want it to be intrusive or to tell an audience what, how to feel or what to think. So, that’s the reason for it being minimal.
ALI: I would call it minimalist but profoundly impactful, if I may say. And that reached a wide audience. The film premiered at Cannes, at the Directors Fortnight in Cannes. It was May 2013, is that correct?
BARNARD: That’s right, yeah. Yeah. And yeah, Connor and Shaun who played Arbor and Swifty were there with us, and their mums came. And yeah, [laughs] it was really, it was really wonderful.
ALI: And it was a proud moment for you as a filmmaker and for your film team. And I’ve read one of your interviews that you mentioned that there’s a lot of pride in the British film industry that, making of different films like The Selfish Giant.
BARNARD: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a tradition in the UK of social realist filmmaking, which I’m very, I’m proud of. I think we do it well. And there’s also a kind of documentary tradition that I guess, in part, that that grew out of. So, yeah, you know, I love Ken Loach’s films. I love Alan Clarke’s films. Mike Leigh’s work, I think, is really great. You know, I think it’s, I think it’s something we do well.
ALI: Indeed, indeed. I fully, totally agree. It’s very British stories, but and very connected to a specific environment, time, sociopolitical environment, but at the same time with universal messages and universal connotations. So, fantastic. I do recommend. I watched it last night again to revisit those, and I found it as powerful and haunting as it was when I saw it at the London Film Festival back in 2013.
Now, moving on to your most recent Bradford-set film, Ali & Ava, a totally different, a departure from, if we can call it your signature social realist narrative style, if, without telling too much or I think some spoiler alerts, with a note of hope and happiness.
BARNARD: Yeah. Yeah, so—
ALI: Tell us, tell us about Ali & Ava.
BARNARD: Yeah. It felt important and something that Adeel, the actor who plays Ali, and I talked about from quite early on was about joy as an act of resistance because—
ALI: Yeah, I know. I like that.
BARNARD: Yeah. And I think in a way, Andrea’s story is a very tragic story, and so is Lorraine’s, her daughter’s. And therefore, The Arbor is a, you know, it’s a difficult film [chuckles]. The Selfish Giant, in a way, I wanted to look at what an ideology of greed does to people’s lives on the ground. And I think that necessitated something that was quite dark and difficult in some ways, because—
BARNARD: —because that is the impact of an ideology of greed. I’m also conscious that in representing Bradford in that way, what you, what you don’t see is what’s brilliant and beautiful about it. I mean, I hope there’s something of that in both of those films through the humanity, I suppose, of the people. And so, in a way, with Ali & Ava, I really wanted to celebrate what was wonderful about the city. And because the people that I’d got to know through, you know, being, I guess, making films there now for over a decade, and I’d got to know people really well and got to love people very much or grow very, we all got very fond of each other, in a way and—
ALI: And that shows.
BARNARD: —and through this process. Yeah.
ALI: And that shows in the film. It’s a celebration of life and diversity and joy. Joy as an act of resistance, I really related to that. It’s a broader framework, a broader human interplay between Ali, a Muslim person in Bradford, in a diverse, culturally diverse, within the racist part of Bradford. Ava is a teacher, but they both, I like the symmetry in their characters, their openness to life in supporting others. And the connecting character here is Sofia, the young Hungarian, probably refugee family or family living in Bradford, who was supported by both Ali and Ava in different ways. Ali was supporting her family, although he was the landlord, but he was giving her lifts to school. Ava was her school teacher who was supporting her, supporting Sofia, to overcome her fears, go and play and explore life and enjoy life. And there was, the music score was a testament to how you can overcome differences by joining, by appreciating other styles of music. So, tell us about the things that brought Ali and Ava together as wonderful human beings.
BARNARD: [chuckles] Yeah. Well, that they, again, are both inspired by real people. So, a little bit like The Selfish Giant, inspired by real people and then taking, I guess in this case, a kind of romantic melodrama rather than a fairy tale as the genre element or whatever and putting those somewhat incongruous things together. So, yeah, Ali was inspired by someone called Moey Hassan, who is a landlord to a Hungarian family and is based on him and the support that he gave to that family and to that, it was actually a little boy in the, in his family. But we, and it was written as a boy in the script, the character. But when we did the casting session, actually, Ariana, who plays Sofia, was just absolutely fantastic. And then by complete coincidence, or Bradford is very small town [laughs], depending on how you look at it, she, Ariana, is related to Moey’s tenants and lived a few doors down, so.
ALI: So, you manage to bring this, there is an organic development like where life imitates fiction.
BARNARD: Yes, it was. Yes, I did through workshops with Adeel, who was involved from very early on.
ALI: Adeel Akhtar, the actor, Ali in the film, yeah.
BARNARD: He plays Ali in the film, yeah, and an actor called Rebecca Manley, who played Arbor’s mum in The Selfish Giant, we, I kind of sketched an idea then. And Rebecca knows Rio, who inspired the character of Ava through making The Selfish Giant. So, we did workshops together, and then I’d go and write. And then we’d workshop some more scenes, and then I’d do some more writing. And Moey and Rio were reading the script as it was developing. And we did a workshop that kind of Rio participated in insofar as she was saying, “Not like that, like this.” [laughs] Yeah. So, anyways, so, there’s a whole kind of process that sort of takes place during the development and during the writing.
ALI: And it’s a process or a labor of love because, again, the film is available on Netflix. So, I got, I managed to watch it again last night, and I was really intrigued by revisiting it. There was that particular scene from the film when Ava tells Ali that, “Every time I look at you, there’s something new and something different about you.” And that’s exactly true of the film, that there is some new dimensions, new connections that are found between the characters in that symmetry I was talking about that was obvious between them both supporting Sofia. But still within that there were the hard truth about her son, Callum, about Ava’s son, Callum, the abuse that she faced, the domestic violence from her husband, ex-husband and Callum’s father. So, there were still in the midst of the joy and music and love and companionship and support and friendship, there were some hard-hitting societal issues. So, tell us about the, if we can call it, the dark side of the film.
BARNARD: Yeah. So, there’s a, I guess, off-screen character insofar as he’s dead, who’s called Paul, but who has quite an impact and influence over Ava’s life, I suppose, and Callum’s life. And in a way, I suppose, Ali and Ava are a catalyst for change in each other’s lives, ‘cause both of them are stuck in different ways. And I think she is stuck because she can’t…she can’t really face that or tell the truth to her son about his father. And in a way, Ali kind of forces that confrontation to happen, I suppose, because—
BARNARD: Yeah. And I suppose for me, there’s something about the history of violence in Ava’s family that relates to the history of violence of the…of colonialism and the empire that has to be faced in order to be able to move on from it. Yeah.
ALI: Yeah. And I’m thinking here of again, the symmetry of the characters. So, there is that conflict, the hidden agendas between Ava’s, her abusive husband and Callum, and similarly, the hidden truth between Ali and Runa’s, in Ali and Runa’s relationship that they’re married, but they’re separated, that they’re not sharing that information with their family. So, they have an open relationship, and Runa goes again and has another relationship. But they’re stuck within the standard shape of what a family looks like in a Muslim community, in that divorce or separation is a taboo. They are, again, within their own confines or within their own cages that the society has compartmentalized them in.
BARNARD: Yeah. I mean, I think for Ali, it’s partly because he doesn’t want it to be true.
ALI: Mmhmm, yeah.
BARNARD: You know, it’s partly because he’s still in love with Runa.
BARNARD: And he doesn’t really want the relationship to end. And in some ways, that is kind of what’s more…it’s kind of the bigger reason, I think, for him not being able to—
ALI: To end.
BARNARD: —to end. He doesn’t want it to end, and I think he feels if he doesn’t tell his family, then it’s not true. So, I think that him being stuck is kind of different in a way from why Ava is stuck.
ALI: So, you went to Bradford 2010, 2013, and 2021 through The Arbor, The Selfish Giant, and Ali & Ava. And reading through some of your interviews around Ali & Ava, you were happy to go back and be part of that bigger, of the Bradford societies and culture and life and with its diversity. Are you going back to Bradford?
BARNARD: Maybe. Maybe. I think, yeah, there’s always gonna be a big part of my heart in Bradford. Yeah, yeah, it’s— Yeah, I mean, I’ve just I’ve grown to really love it, and—
ALI: You’re fond. It’s obvious you’re fond of the place and the people.
BARNARD: The people, yeah. Yeah, very much so. And, you know, I guess probably scratch the surface of any street, [laughs] and you find really fascinating, interesting stories. I think maybe what it is about Bradford is that it had this, it has this diversity that you’re talking about, and it also has this deprivation because of the collapse of the textile industry in the ‘80s. And yeah. So, I think this, it’s a…there’s some kind of microcosm there or something of being able to explore lots of things that are very relevant and important, I suppose, more globally. That’s not very well put, but I hope you know what I mean.
ALI: I’m following. Thank you so much. It’s a special place, but I have to say that it takes a special eye and a special director and filmmaker to identify those areas of conflict, of tension, but as well as areas of beauty and originality and uniqueness, if I may say so. And we, as audience, we are the richer for having experienced the stories of Andrea Dunbar, Lorraine, Arbor, and Swifty, Ali and Ava, and all those who are around them in their lives, making their individual stories, and also reflecting as audience, as Humanities scholars, academics, health and social care professionals, or lay audience. So, and for all that, Clio, I must thank you ever so much for the wonderful opportunity of exploring with you the behind, behind the scenes of those three wonderful films that I do recommend to the listeners and the audience and the readers of Medical Humanities. Thank you ever so much.
BARNARD: Thank you. Thanks so much for inviting me.
ALI: Thank you. It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much. Thanks, Clio. We’ll look for your new adventure, a new film, maybe in Bradford again.
BARNARD: [chuckles] Maybe! Yes, thank you!
ALI: One never knows. Thank you so much. Thank you.
BARNARD: Thanks so much.