The Arbor (2010)
Art that springs out of suffering as an historical document is often perceived as having emerged from a crucible, that it’s somehow been purified and refined, and is capable of generating, from out of the misery, a new energy for good and a new structure for comprehension. Anne Frank wrote about the minutia of adolescence in the teeth of the holocaust, and the tender record from her attic cell is tragic and beautiful. Che Guevara’s Bolivia journal is a meticulous timeline of a desperate span in the life of a soldier whose indefatigable will remains an inspiration to many. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s faith in his God and his utter rejection of the Nazi authority that carried out his execution fills his writings with a subtle poignancy and elicits a complex empathy from many. People like these left us documents which have in turn survived to be documented and now serve as testaments to the depth of the human spirit under extreme duress largely because they provide as such a sharp contrast between hope and colossal struggle. But how when the art or document is very nearly the abject clone of the misery that spawned it, when it is so dark that it is barely allusive to any particular hope or any faint ideal?
Andrea Dunbar suffered quite a lot during her short life, and like many other artists she left documents behind that captured and conveyed the ways that she knew the world around her. These documents are respected by many, but they are heavy and not easily managed. The Arbor succeeds in appropriating her stenography but not her broken heart; in doing so it tends to treat Dunbar’s art as the raging spawn of her circumstance and not as a creative expression to come out of it. The director’s spotlight does shine boldly, but it mostly illuminates her own meticulous structures, the lip synched interviews and carefully managed actors emoting over the actual family’s voices, reciting autobiography that’s dizzy with the fictional bias of verbatim theater. The Arbor tries to marry Dunbar’s sincere volatility to its own convoluted form. But Dunbar’s story is not so easily managed. The director, Clio Barnard weaves a multifaceted and heavily indulgent film, which, if taken by itself - as if it were purely fictional and not documentary - would in no way compromises the film’s energy or its creative force. But it is intended as a document of sorts and as such her methods may ultimately compromise Dunbar’s art, and that would seem to defeat the original purpose of the film.
The problem, as it appears to me, is that Dunbar’s life and the art that sprang from it have only the faintest glimmers of anything like hope to begin with, but those glimmers are key to engendering the empathy that can bring the audience down to meet her in the wreck of her particular hell. But Barnard’s self-reflexive layers of mechanisms smother Dunbar’s subtler emotional nuance, leaving room only for the loudness, the mania, the swearing and the rage. The result is that there is no definite empathetic focal point, and the slim potential for even the mildest of edificatory designs is effaced.
Dunbar was born into hell, and she wrote about it with a manic fervor, then hell rose and washed over her and she died. That is all. In Barnard’s hands, Dunbar’s life is a cautionary tale at best. The nihilism that overwhelms her meta narrative catches up all the complementing pieces and seems to infect the veracity of the entire document. But so be it; the language of documentary film is chimeric, and for me to expect or hunt for a hint of hopefulness is indicative of my own romantic naiveté. So the credits roll, and we understand a little bit more what it means to be hopeless in a world where people all around you clamor about love and hope. If there is more to Dunbar’s life and art than that, then perhaps it may be found in the future, couched in a less ambitious feature that focuses more directly on the document and not the upon documentarian.
Director: Clio Barnard
Cast: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin, Parvani Lingiah, Danny Webb, Kate Rutter, Liam Price, Neil Dudgeon, Monica Dolan, Kathryn Pogson, Jimi Mistry, George Costigan