England, 2010, 94 min
British playwright Andrea Dunbar (1961–1990) didn’t come “out of nowhere,” as a familiar formula might have it. Both she and her art hailed from a precise place: Brafferton Arbor, a poor row of council estates in Bradford, West Yorkshire, the tangible setting for this moody, exquisitely crafted film portrait. Nevertheless, Dunbar’s arrival at London’s Royal Court Theatre at age 17 was hardly expected. When she died of a brain hemorrhage at 29, she vanished as suddenly as she had arrived. Dunbar left a complex legacy, entwined in several sexually precocious, uncompromisingly gritty and very funny plays—including Rita, Sue, and Bob Too!, made into a celebrated film by Alan Clarke in 1986 (SFIFF 1993)—and three children with three different men. Barnard delves into this bounding yet brooding history with inspired invention. Marshaling the techniques of documentary theater, she mixes archival footage with scenes from Dunbar’s seminal play, The Arbor, staged outdoors on Brafferton Arbor itself. Meanwhile, actors lip-synch extensive audio interviews with family, neighbors and intimates—performances so deft you could easily miss the conceit, but adding subtly to the narrative’s hypnotic pull. As Dunbar’s tenacity, ambivalence and depression emerge from the Arbor, so too does the story of Lorraine (a quietly haunted Manjinder Virk), her half-Pakistani child who descended into addiction, prostitution and finally prison. Art and life intermingle in prolific ways as absorbing accounts by Lorraine, her siblings and others reverberate with, and respond to, the brutal, beautiful career of a working-class artist.
Presented in association with American Conservatory Theater.