Clio Barnard’s The Arbor charted the troubled life of working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar. Her new film, The Selfish Giant, about two boys who scavenge to survive on a Bradford estate, has been called ‘a Kes for the 21st century’. Here she talks about the appeal of the margins
Clio Barnard: ‘I don’t want the film to have explicit political content, but it is there.’ Photograph: Shamil Tanna
Back in 2010, when Clio Barnard was shooting her first feature film, The Arbor, on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, a young local lad caught her eye. “I first saw him when he was just 14, when I went to Buttershaw to do a workshop at a school,” she recalls. “There was just something about him that was different from the other lads I met. He was a bit volatile, but enigmatic too and he really made his presence felt. When I went to Brafferton Arbor [the street on which The Arbor is set] for the first time, there he was, wearing his rigger boots and really dirty clothes. It was pure attitude, a kind of ‘fuck you!’ to anyone who dare call him a pikey.”
- The Selfish Giant
- Production year: 2013
- Directors: Clio Barnard
- Cast: Conner Chapman, Sean Gilder, Shaun Thomas
The lad, whom Barnard refers to only as Matty, would hang around the set “making himself useful”. He had built a makeshift stable in the backyard of his family’s council flat and sometimes he would arrive on horseback. Other times he would turn up with his best friend, Michael, another outsider, even among the many outsiders on the tough Bradford housing estate. The two survived by whatever means necessary, often spending their days out “scrapping” – scavenging for metal to sell to a local dealer. “There was a real ambivalence in the community about whether the scrap merchant was exploiting them or giving them an opportunity,” says Barnard, “but I remember Matty’s mum saying to me, ‘What the hell else is he going to do around here? At least he’s earning some money.'”
Others on the estate, though, looked less kindly upon “scrappers”, not least because they often steal copper cable – one of the most lucrative commodities in Britain’s black economy – from railway tracks, causing major disruption to train services. “I was intrigued by these two lads who were ostracised by other kids on the estate,” continues Barnard. “They really were on the margins of the margins, yet they had this pride in themselves. Matty had no interest in buying clothes or trainers, and he hated drugs. He just seemed fiercely independent, a survivor whose skills could have been put to use somehow, but he was utterly excluded.”
Three years on, Matty and Michael are the real-life models for Arbor and Swifty, the two wayward, but magnetic, young teenage characters at the centre of Barnard’s powerful new film, The Selfish Giant. Played by 13-year-old Conner Chapman, who lives on the Butterworth estate, and 15-year-old Shaun Thomas, who lives on nearby Holme Wood, Arbor and Swifty are the scruffy oddballs around whom the film’s many strands – political, metaphorical, poetic – are woven. And, whereas The Arbor was very much an art film, in which actors lip-synched to the voices of real people on Butterworth estate in order to illustrate the life and work of the instinctively gifted but ill-starred local writer Andrea Dunbar, The Selfish Giant is, in the words of one of its lead actors, Sean Gilder, “a Kes for the 21st century”.
The comparisons with Ken Loach’s 1969 social realist classic are inevitable and not altogether inaccurate. Barnard, though, whose background is in conceptual art, brings an artist’s eye to rest on Bradford and its environs. Her cinematographer, Mike Eley, makes the bleakest landscapes resonate with a luminous beauty in a series of protracted, still images that punctuate the narrative. The film is rigorously devoid of sentimentality right down to the absence of a soundtrack, save for the ambient noises that accompany the stills. Based loosely on Oscar Wilde’s fairytale of the same name, The Selfish Giant is set in a viscerally true-to-life Britain that we seldom see on screen; a place where the economically marginalised have been rendered all but invisible by a culture in thrall to consumerism and a political establishment in thrall to the market.
The Selfish Giant of the title, then, not only refers to the morally dubious scrap dealer, Kitten (played with Dickensian relish by Sean Gilder ofShameless fame), who exploits the young lads, but to a political ideology that fuels greed, selfishness and lack of concern about the social fallout. “I don’t want the film to have explicit political content, but it is there,” says Barnard, as we chat over coffee in a room in the Hospital, a club in London’s Covent Garden. “It’s essentially a film about love, deep friendship and loyalty between the two boys, but it is played out in an adult world where something has gone fundamentally wrong, and children are often at the cutting edge of that. When I was making The Arbor, what I saw was excluded children whom we criminalise and demonise and who I think are victims of the widening gap of inequality. They get pushed out and that makes me upset and really, really angry. With The Selfish Giant, hopefully you see what gets lost when that ideology of greed is adopted wholesale.”
Tall and angular, with a measured approach to answering questions, Barnard seems too calm to be driven by political anger, but The Selfish Giant is a film that will make you rage and cry and, if you are a disenfranchised leftie like me, want to throttle any passing Tory politician or Daily Mail leader writer. Much of its power rests in its unsentimental script and the performances that Barnard has coaxed from its two child leads, neither of whom had ever acted before. “It was quite disconcerting at times to watch them perform on camera,” says Sean Gilder. “You find yourself wondering in the back of your mind if you are going to be shown up by two natural actors.”
When I ask Barnard about the risks of casting children with no acting experience, she laughs nervously. “God, yeah, there were a few really problematic moments. On the very first day of rehearsals, Conner grew bored very quickly and asked if he could go home. Now, he’s in every scene, so the whole film was dependent on his performance. We actually thought for a moment that we would have to recast and audition for his part.” Did that scare him into focusing? “It scared me! And him. When he realised we were serious, he became really determined, but it was touch and go for a while.”
The film tracks the boys’ friendship as they stumble their way into tentative adulthood in a world where there are no role models. Both are products of what are now blithely called dysfunctional families, and are scorned by the slightly less marginalised kids around them. They find a way of belonging – and being themselves – in their tight friendship, loyalty to each other and shared outsiderness. Arbor is the more restless and volatile one, an instinctive troublemaker to Swifty’s more easygoing, easily swayed follower. “They are both playing against type,” says Barnard, laughing. “Conner is not a loud, wired extrovert, but actually quite closed and he finds it hard to make eye contact. Shaun is extrovert and very, very funny. He had everyone in stitches a lot of the time.”
One of the film’s many subplots revolves around the Traveller tradition of road-racing horses attached to sulkies – two-wheeled carts. The illegal sport has gained popularity of late – see YouTube for evidence – and often takes place on motorways at dawn, while lines of cars block access to legal traffic. (Barnard made a short film, Road Race, on the subject in 2004).
Like the hapless Billy Casper in Kes, Swifty has a natural affinity with animals, in this instance the horse that Kitten owns and trains for road racing. When Kitten begins to exploit the boy’s natural ability, he unwittingly drives a wedge between Swifty and the suddenly unmoored Arbor. As in Wilde’s fairytale, the unthinkingly brutal adult word impinges on the childhood one, in this instance with devastating results.
Barnard gently warns me more than once not to give away the twists and turns of the plot. Suffice to say, then, that the narrative moves deftly with a directorial sure-footedness that’s breathtaking when you remember that this is only Barnard’s second feature.
“I have worked with some brilliant directors, but I don’t think I have ever worked with anyone as calm,” says Siobhan Finneran, who plays Swifty’s beleaguered but loving mother, a haunted – and haunting – presence in a film that suggests more than it spells out. “Even though the subject matter was tough, I was literally skipping to work. I felt safe and secure in her hands, which is rare. It’s a film that I am really proud to have been a part of.”
And, like the films that Barnard adores – Kes, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, Truffaut’s 400 Blows, and more recently, Samira Makhmalbaf’s classic Iranian children’s tale, The Apple – The Selfish Giant fulfils her aim “to make a film in the realist tradition of fables about children”. One hopes that older children will get to see it. “I hope so,” she says, nodding. “I do think we protect children way too much and at our own peril and maybe we are protecting ourselves. Bruno Bettelheim talks about this in The Uses of Enchantment, that children need to be able to deal with loss and separation. They need to be prepared for love and loss through stories, because every love story is a potential grief story. There has to be reason for us to go and experience grief and loss in a cinema and that surely has to do with making sense of grief and loss in our own lives. And love. I do think my film is essentially a platonic love story.”
Clio Barnard in Random Acts of Intimacy.
Clio Barnard grew up on “a small postwar housing estate” in the town of Otley in Yorkshire. Her dad was a university lecturer and her mum an artist who later became a jazz singer. He parents separated when she was six and her dad brought up the three siblings – she has an older sister and a younger brother. “I was looked at as the posh kid at school because my dad taught English – the Romantic poets mainly,” she says, laughing. “So, we were a bit bohemian in some way, at least compared to everyone else, though I never thought of it like that at the time.”
As a teenager, she gravitated to nearby Bradford “to go ice-skating, see bands and just hang out”. She went to art school in Leeds, Newcastle and then Scotland, studying fine art but continually being pulled towards film. “I started by making records of my drawings, frame by frame, on a Bolex Super 8. Click, click, click. Then I’d go into the dark room and put them on an optical printer. I got seduced by film just through that process. I have tried making things as an artist but it somehow always ends up as film.”
On graduating, she made several short art films for various galleries, including Tate Modern and Moma, New York, and laboured over a feature “that didn’t go anywhere”. As an artist who came of age when postmodern theory made its presence felt in art schools, she has always been concerned with levels of representation and downright suspicious of realism. A short film from 2006, Dark Glass, was shot on a mobile phone and comprises recreated images from her childhood overlaid with memories recalled when she was under hypnosis.
Watching Nick Park’s Creature Comforts(1989) was an early creative epiphany. In Park’s film, ambient recordings of conversations made in Arlington House, a refuge for homeless men in Camden, north London, was then synched to an animation. “It was pretty poor-quality tape recordings of what was going on, but it presented this kind of reality that was completely constructed in terms of images. I loved it! I was drawn to the kind of questions that process provoked.”
In a key short film, Random Acts of Intimacy (2002), she recorded real people talking about their experiences of having sex with a stranger in a public place and then had actors lip-synch to their voices. The process gives some indication of the painstaking way in which she works. “I put an advert in a paper and got some pretty weird people ringing me up, but eventually I met with the ones who had the most interesting stories. They were mostly women, interestingly. I talked with them for ages, then edited down the recordings to a 15-minute soundtrack around which I constructed the images. Some of those images were taken from porn films I refilmed off the TV screen, then presented in the context of the new stories. It was,” she says, laughing, “a rather laborious way of experimenting with a technique in which the sound is verbatim, but the images are constructed. I am still pretty interested in what sort of questions that dynamic raises.”
That same process underpinned her first feature film, The Arbor, which was supported by Artangel, the arts commissioning body that funds ambitious projects by up-and-coming and established artists. “She applied to the Artangel Open,” remembers the company’s co-director, Michael Morris, “and we were immediately impressed by her ambition and vision. It was really a hybrid form that she had created – a feature told in an unconventional way using real dialogue lip-synched by actors. It was her aspiration to sustain that process for the length of a feature film that really intrigued us. Plus, she was questioning the veracity of documentary and the storytelling techniques of fictional film by literally putting words in people’s mouths. It was a bold idea that started small and just grew and grew into this thing of real power and beauty.”
The Arbor tackled the troubled life of Bradford-born Andrea Dunbar, hailed as “the genius from the slums” when the play she had written as a teenager, also called The Arbor, was shown at the Royal Court in London in 1980. She went on to write Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a fiercely authentic slice of working class life, which was turned into an acclaimed film, shot on location on the Butterworth estate, by the mercurial director Alan Clarke. The film’s frank treatment of teenage female sexuality – the title refers to a guilt-free sexual affair between a married man and his two teenage babysitters – and raw language divided the critics. It is now recognised as a classic take on the tradition of British social-realist film-making that includes Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and Cathy Come Home.
“I love Alan Clarke’s work, particularly Road, which brilliantly plays around with realism and representation,” says Barnard. “But I also loveRita, Sue and Bob Too, even though it’s his most traditional work. There is something so tough and hilariously funny about the film and a lot of that is down to Andrea’s writing. But, I was also intrigued by her own story, which is so complex and so shaded by darkness. Addiction had gone through generations in her family and her own life was messy to say the least. Plus, there was this idea that, as soon as she found success as a writer, she would be better off out of Buttershaw. I’m just not sure about that. It was very complicated what she did through her writing – she took on representing her community and then carrying the enormous weight of that.”
Dunbar’s work, and her success, divided the people she lived among, many of whom shared the view of the local newspaper, which describedRita, Sue and Bob Too in one headline as “Nasty Brutish Bradford Life”. Disillusioned by the producer’s decision to bring other scriptwriters on board to give the film a more upbeat ending, and by the animosity of many of the locals, Dunbar became increasingly dependent on alcohol and decided to give up writing. She died in 1990, aged just 29, after collapsing in a local pub, the Beacon, with a brain haemorrhage.
Andrea Dunbar is a subtle presence in The Selfish Giant, from the name of the main character, Arbor, to a grittily funny scene shot in the Beacon. There’s the casting of Siobhan Finneran, who played Sue in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Plus, it’s a move away from the self-consciousness of Barnard’s previous film towards the realist style of Dunbar’s work. “It’s definitely a much more straightforward narrative than The Arbor,” she says, “but I still want the audience to be aware of all the different levels of representation there are when a camera is used and how elusive the truth is. You can’t really say that one kind of film is more real or truthful than another. That’s why I wanted to keep the title, which references a fairytale, to make it explicit that this is also a fable about childhood.”
For her next film, Barnard is moving somewhat reluctantly away from Bradford and the Butterworth estate, with an adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass, which is set in rural France. “It’s completely different from anything I have done before. I’ve always generated my own stuff and suddenly people are bringing things to me.”
She could always say no…
“I could, but the characters that interested me in Trespass are outsiders, too. They are marginalised and isolated in a very different way. That seems to be what I’m drawn to. I’m not sure what that says about me.” She pauses. “It really does seem like I am leaving Bradford behind, which makes me feel insecure.”
Another pause. “I’m sure I’ll return, though. I’ve grown to love the place and the people I’ve met there. All you hear about in the tabloids are the dysfunctional families, but never the functioning ones, who are also struggling to survive in this environment. The contentious term for the working class is the underclass. I hate loaded language like that because it puts the responsibility on the wrong people.” Her beautiful and angry film goes some way to redressing that imbalance.
The Selfish Giant is released on 25 October. The film is also availble through the BFI’s video-on-demand service from the same date
BACK TO NEWS