Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Observing the Latest State of "The Arbor"

Manjinder Virk as Lorraine Dunbar in “The Arbor.” Below, Natalie Gavin as Andrea Dunbar in a scene from the film “The Arbor,” depicting a scene from the play, “The Arbor.” Photos by Nick Wall courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

IN a scene near the end of “The Arbor,” Andrea Dunbar is waiting on the platform with baby Lorraine for a train. When the train arrives she takes Lorraine out of her carriage and mother, baby and carriage board the car. It takes off and we see baby standing on mother’s lap and both are looking wistfully out the window.

It is this scene that in part drew director Clio Barnard to “The Arbor,” she said after its world premiere Sunday night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. "I was touched by that understated expression of love."

“The Arbor,” an often shockingly sad and always engrossing film about the troubled relationship between British playwright Andrea Dunbar and Lorraine Dunbar, takes its name from AD’s first play about a white girl who is impregnated by her Pakistani boyfriend. Named for the street that AD grew up on, Brafferton Arbor, the play was a school project that would reach the eyes of London’s Royal Court Theatre artistic director Max Stafford-Clark who would later stage the work in 1980.

To tell the story of “The Arbor,” which serves as an update on this community a decade after it was the focus of a play commissioned by MS-C, CB spent two years recording interviews with residents of Brafferton Arbor. She talked to friends, relatives and just about everyone relevant to AD’s life. To blur as much as possible the line between documentary filmmaking and fiction filmmaking, CB used actors to lip-synch to the voices of these real-life people. In other words, the voices in the film are the voices of the players in this true story, not those of the actors we see on screen. It is not clear why she used this technique to color outside the lines because it is not obvious that the actors are lip-synching. It's an interesting hook but does nothing to enhance the story. On the otherhand, nor does it detract from it. Indeed, it is a triumph of acting for those who have suffered through myriad films that have been poorly dubbed.

Initially, it was a bit disconcerting and a wee bit awkward listening to the actors tell the stories of the real characters. (As an aside, it is hoped that CB will add subtitles for those unaccustomed to that garbled, under-enunciated North English accent.) But soon the actors became the people they were portraying. It is hard for me to separate Manjinder Virk from the real Lorraine, though one of the producers said they were careful to ensure that there was no resemblance. There’s a lot of talk in “The Arbor.” Normally, I would have preferred a little more action, but to show some of what befell Lorraine, such as a brutal rape and torture by a boyfriend/pimp, would have been unbearable to watch.

AD was a member of Great Britain’s vast underclass or, as the BBC refers to the poor and hopeless – downtrodden – who lives on the tough Buttershaw Estate or projects. Streets on the estate such as the Arbor are places where despair, drunkenness, drug abuse, spousal/partner abuse, teen and unwed pregnancy are the norm. And they are dens of racism, evidenced by the reaction to AD’s Pakistani boyfriend. Despite AD’s early success with “The Arbor” and later “Rita, Sue and Bob Too” – also staged by RCT – she could not rise above her circumstances, instead falling into an abyss of inappropriate men and alcohol that may have contributed to her death in 1990 at age 29 of a brain hemorrhage in a pub. "She died in her home, didn't she," says Lorraine who was also 29 when CB began recording her interviews in 2008. "She practically lived there anyhow."

It is into this world that the part-Pakistani Lorraine – who is at the center of the film – was born. It was Lorraine who saw her mother at her worst. She was in tow when her mother visited various pubs. And when she didn’t accompany her mother she could hear her coming home at night, almost always accompanied by a man. One night when Lorraine was pretending to be asleep she heard her mother tell one of her men that she wished the child had been not born and that she could not truly love her half-Pakistani child as much as her two white ones. That revelation seemed to thrust Lorraine into a life of drug abuse, unwed motherhood, prostitution, pimps, prison, a sugardaddy and a short-lived quickie marriage. CB says Lorraine, who was in prison as recently as 2007 for the manslaugther death of her son, is doing well now. One can only hope that she can keep it together, for so often in the past she’s failed to overcome her addiction to crack and heroin, which seemed to always land her in a hot mess.

Those of us who have mothers who did not love us or who we thought did not love us empathize with Lorraine. We are familiar with that despair and desperation. We cheer the precious few times when it seemed she would defeat her circumstances. And we morn her repeated failures. Yet we want her to find a way to rise above and stay above her hurt and pain, to not allow it to beat her down. We know it's possible to overcome. Prisons, insane asylums and cemeteries are full of the Lorraines of the world. And so are boardrooms, government bodies and grand concert stages.

“The Arbor” will have additional screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at SVA and at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Village East Cinemas. Visit www.tribecafilm.com for all Tribeca Film Festival information.

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