In 1977, when Andrea Dunbar was 15, she started work on The Arbor, a play based on her life in a rundown neighborhood of Bradford, in the north of England. Three years later, the play enjoyed a successful run in London. Dunbar became famous and wrote several other plays about similar themes—sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, violence—but then died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1990.
Director and artist Clio Barnard spent two years making sound recordings of the people from Dunbar’s circle. Instead of using the material as an inspiration for a conventional documentary, she had actors lip-synch to the audio. Every sigh, gasp, and pause in the voices get articulated impeccably by the actors. She interweaves this with scenes from The Arbor that are acted out in Dunbar’s neighborhood.
Through the confrontation of documentary and fiction, Barnard shows that documentary is always a construction. It is the perfect medium for Dunbar’s semi-autobiographical texts, in which the boundary between fiction and reality is truly a gray area.