Clio Barnard & the Philosophy of Film

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Welcome back to the ‘In a Nutshell’ section. This is part of an ongoing project in collaboration with King’s College, London to engage with artists (by interviewing them) and to present the content with a brief introductory summary that contextualizes the artist’s work within current philosophical debates.

Our third interview features Clio Barnard. Clio is a writer and director of feature films and documentaries. She won widespread critical acclaim and multiple awards for her debut, The Arbor, an experimental documentary about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. In 2013 she brought her signature style to a modern day re-telling of  The Selfish Giant, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes film festival. Recently, her third feature-length film, Dark River, was released to similar praise.

Clio Barnard | King’s Cultural Institute | CPVA

The Philosophy of Film

The creativity and influence of our contemporary film makers has subverted the tendency for professional philosophers to remain distinct from their target of study when analysing cinema. While empirical scientists and philosophers of physics tend to dominate distinct areas of investigation, philosophers of film can also be and often are, film-makers.

Filmmakers use their medium to raise questions about philosophical puzzles. This quirk has generated a robust breeding ground for philosophical banter. Films are not only artworks (the philosophy of film), but also purveyors of philosophical content (films as philosophy).

For example, films seem to hold this chimerical position in the debate over the distinction between fictions and non-fictions. Philosophers (in the analytic tradition) draw the distinction between fact and fiction by way of the imagination. Fictions invite a fictive (imaginative) experience, whereas non-fictions invite an assertive (belief driven) experiences. The prevailing view then, is that there is a special link between ‘fiction’ and ‘imagination’, where the association between these two explains what is going on in the head of the cinemagoer when watching a film.

Against this orthodoxy, Matravers (2012) suggests that whether or not a work is a fiction has nothing to do with how we process and comprehend the work. Imagination does not entail fictionality and so the two do not share the ‘special’ relationship posited by influential writers such as Kendall Walton (1990).

How might the novice start to feel their way into these debates, unpack the differences and adjudicate between the orthodox and challenger positions?

An excellent starting place is to watch Clio Barnard’s seminal film about the playwright Andrea Dunbar The Arbor (2010), which intermixes theatrical actors (fictional) and documentary audio (nonfictional material).  The Arbor, along with Barnard’s other films such as The Selfish Giant (2013) and Dark River (2017), challenges our ability to determine whether a work is at root a fiction incorporating documentary aspects or vice versa. Does the existence of a hybrid case like The Arbor, and the portrayal of social realism in her feature films The Selfish Giant and Dark River incline you towards the orthodox view or away from it?

Luckily, Clio was on-hand to provide her perspective. What follows is an ‘intermix’ of telephone conversations and written correspondence.

  • VB: Vanessa Brassey (Philosophy, King’s College, London)
  • CB: Clio Barnard (Film-maker)

Transcript excerpts from Interviews

VB: Hi Clio – it’s a busy Monday morning, I hope this is a good time to chat.

CB: Now’s a great time and it’s a pleasure.

VB: Fab. I’ve been looking forward to asking you about The Arbor and the philosophy of film. The Arbor is comprised of a mixture of reportage audio, dramatic reconstruction, play scripts and lip-synching. It connects realism and theatricality in an original way. What inspired this style?

CB: Well I was profoundly influenced by documentaries like the Thin Blue Line, and was fortunate in exploring and developing my own style while at film school. I was struck by the way the audience is constantly reminded they are watching a reconstruction without interruption to the narrative.

VB: Is one of the aims to reinforce the thought ‘these events actually happened’ by drawing our attention to the reality of the narrative or the reconstructed reality of the narrative?

CB – It’s doing both. It some ways it’s about reminding people that they are watching something that’s been tampered with if you see what I mean. Even though some of these things really happened, inevitably in the retelling it’s told from a point of view or it’s changed, edited. There’s no escaping that. It reminds an audience of my intervention but also that the person telling the story has a particular point of view. It will be subjective and will change every time they tell it. So we have to remain constantly vigilant as a maker and as a viewer, I guess (and as a participant).

VB: Is this a visual equivalent of saying…I’m going to tell you a story now (signposting that its neutral between actuality and fictionality) but bear in mind that I’m quite moved by this story and that influences the story?

CB: It’s kind of I’m going to tell you a story and because the story is, well in my view in the terms of The Arbor an important one. It’s important to know that is real. It’s simultaneously important (from an ethical standpoint) to know in a way from an ethical point of view that it will inevitably be changed in the telling of it. There’s a quote from Errol Morris that I really love (he made this film the Thin Blue Line). It’s a seminal, important documentary that came after cinema vérité and it’s very stylized. It uses reconstructions and interviews. Wisely, he says ‘Truth Can’t be Guaranteed by Style or Expression – Truth can’t be guaranteed by anything’. And I agree with him, completely. And the main thing to do is remind the audience of that rather than seduce them into believing it

VB: Would that reminder mark the difference between a propaganda piece and a documentary for you? Seducing someone into thinking, this IS the way it is: propaganda. Reminding people they are watching a subjective account: documentary?

CB: Yeah, I guess it’s that, but I don’t know that I’d necessarily see something less insistently seductive as propaganda. Maybe it’s an interesting idea but I guess I’ve never thought of it that way.

VB: Do you think that it is an important part of the audience’s experience that they imagine, at least at the beginning of the Arbor, what it must have been like for Andrea writing those works at that time and it that place.

CB: Yeah, I think there are all kinds of acts of imagination going on. So, one of the bits that I quite would have liked to have shown as a clip on Saturday but I didn’t have it available – (Clio has just given the keynote speech at the British Society for Aesthetics Conference) – was the bit where Lorraine says or is talking about working as a prostitute. She says, ‘physically its nothing but emotionally’ and then there is a really long pause ‘I’ve seen girls hang themselves over it’. And then there’s another really long pause…and then she says, ‘but I don’t really want to talk about that’. When we were editing the audio obviously there were these pauses. Presumably, when pausing a lot was going on in her imagination. It was really important to leave those pauses exactly as they were. To leave those gaps exactly as they were. And then the actress that played her had to reproduce those gaps from a sort of technical point of view – reproducing the gaps (which were active moments of imagining) presented quite a technical challenge. Aside from not knowing what Lorraine was imagining, I don’t know what was in the actress’s imagination at the point that she says that and then again, I don’t know what’s in the audience’s imagination in those gaps. There are lots of acts of imagination going on in the film, at the film, generated from the audio.

VB: Are these acts of imagination directed at reality? Does the film have to direct them at all, in order for the viewer to recreate them?

CB: Well, in a way, for Lorraine it’s very private. She didn’t want to share it. She didn’t want to talk about it – we won’t know what she’s seeing in her mind’s eye. There are other bits in it where I take a real liberty and recreate something that was undoubtedly not in her mind’s eye, like the girl dancing on the car [see Arbor timecode approx. 33 minutes]. That image of the girl is completely from my imagination. Part of me feels worried about that. Was that ok? Should I have done it? It was an image of freedom, music and escape or whatever. These moments when I’m interpreting, that’s potentially a really dodgy thing to do. I easily had enough critical distance to go, oh hang on, is this allowed, is it correctly part of the story? I’m sure that this happened to Errol Morris as well. He’s reconstructing events. Continually pointing out that ‘this is reconstruction’ doesn’t gain you the right to reconstruct things with an open mandate. You’re still on unstable ground.

VB: So the Filmmaker has authority over the film meaning, and that authority comes with a certain responsibility?

CB: Yeah but even with all that in place you still may NOT do it responsibly. (she laughs).

VB: You can have the intention to be responsible and that can misfire for whatever reason?

CB:  Yeah, yeah,

VB: The way you introduced the story of the fire, in the opening sequences of the film set up the expectation for the audience that much of what was to follow was in part a synchronizing of points of view. As well as synchronizing desire and memory. For instance, Lorraine so wanted her father to visit that she had confabulated a visit. It was a desire that developed imaginatively which she mistakes for an episodic memory.

CB: I think there’s wiggle room here. He did come, but he didn’t take her for the weekend. So it wasn’t entirely fabricated. Maybe embellished. But I think memories and imagination are drawing on the same part of the brain. So they are using the same internal mechanisms which of course makes total sense, so it doesn’t mean that either Lorraine or Lisa was wrong about what happened in that bedroom (referring here to the fire). We know that a fire happened. That’s not in dispute. The details about it are surprisingly inconsistent but maybe just as valid.

VB: Could we also say this about the finale in The Selfish Giant? And does this show a continuum of themes between your docudrama and feature films (such a theme about powerless mothers, recalling traumatic events etc.) between all your films?

CB: Powerless mothers? I’m not sure about that theme. If it’s a theme – I’ll have to think about it. If it’s a carry-over from one film to the next then it’s a totally unconscious thing, I’ve never thought about it that way at all. In The Selfish Giant, the moment was all about forgiveness, and I think this is a two-way thing. I think it’s as important for her (Swifty’s grieving mother) as it is for him (Arbor, the central character). And I think maybe it speaks to something in all of us in needing to be held and loved and needing to hold and love someone. (Clio laughs) I dunno maybe that’s crap. We shot that scene when Siobhan (Siobhan Finneran who plays Mrs Swift) was saying things or speaking. Then it became clear that the most powerful version was when she didn’t say anything at all and it was all about that physicality of being held. It was hard for him (Connor Chapman who plays Arbor) to be as vulnerable as he needed. And he’s a wonderfully talented actor. So, we had to shoot from behind and have her face in that shot. Unexpectedly this released something about his physical performance in the way he leaps into her arms that is very directly felt.

VB: In The Arbor, there is another scene I found incredibly compelling, almost painfully so to watch. This is a scene which seems (to me) to bear witness to your compassion as the storyteller. You make it fictionally true that Lorraine’s grievances are heard by her mother.

This whole scene intrigued me because there was a porosity between real-world feelings (your feelings) and the world of the film (a reconstructed or imaginary world). Your feelings were expressed in the real world, by being constituted in the film world. In fact, although we see the actress read Lorraine’s voice, speak the scripted words from the State of Affair and this whole scene is an artifice, it feels redolent with real emotion. What’s going on here?

CB: Well it’s lovely to hear that. I guess the way I thought of it at the time, was that it was the ghost of Andrea and also because Andrea doesn’t know what then happened to Lorraine and I sort of I feel for Andrea as a mother too. When Lorraine says she overheard her mother saying she wished she’d never had her, and that she couldn’t love her as much as she loved the other two, it’s just heartbreaking. Who knows what motivated Andrea to say it – maybe the guy she was dating was racist or something and she was trying to impress him or some other awful excuse, which might have mitigated the damage. She might want to correct how Lorraine internalized that comment. It felt kind of double tragic because it was a conversation that could never happen because of Andrea dying so young. And of course, Andrea’s death must have really hurt Lorraine. Lisa says I think she does miss her (about Lorraine’s grief) ‘but, she’s just got a mad way of showing it’. In some ways, Lorraine is angry at her mum for dying which is understandable but also irrational. The tragedy is that Andrea died and that conversation could never take place. It was an opportunity in a way to create some closure although I don’t know I was aware of it in that way at the time. Hearing the interpretation now is interesting, to think about whether it could make sense of why I made the decision (to do it) back then.

VB: If it offers Lorraine comfort in the real world, it also has positive real-world upshots. Fiction begetting reality. Did Lorraine see the film?

CB: Yeah, we showed it to everybody before it was released. They needed to give their consent. Lorraine told me she used it since to show to various people who are helping her, with her addictions or whatever, so it’s been useful to have in quite a tangible way.

VB: Clio, thank you for your generosity in speaking to us today. I’ve just watched your latest film Dark River which I think plays with some of these themes. I can’t wait for the next project to hit our screens.

CB: Thank you!

The Arbor

Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) won several awards including Best New Documentary Filmmaker at Tribeca Film Festival New York, Best Newcomer and Sutherland Awards at The London Film Festival, Douglas Hickox Award at British Independent Film Awards, The Guardian First Film Award, Best Screenplay at the London Evening Standard Film Awards, the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival Innovation Award and the Jean Vigo Award for Best Direction at Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival. She was nominated for the BAFTA Outstanding Debut Award in February 2011.

Further Reading

Falzon, Christopher. 2007. Philosophy Goes to the Movies: an Introduction to Philosophy. London/New York, Routledge.

Mulhall, Stephen. 2002. On Film. London: Routledge.

Wartenberg, Thomas. 2007. Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy. New York/London, Routledge.