The soulful filmmaker behind The Selfish Giant on Oscar Wilde and life on the teenage scrapheap
Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:
Clio Barnard electrified the UK film scene with her 2010 debut, The Arbor, a trailblazing docu-fiction hybrid based on the life of ill-fated Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (Rita, Sue and Bob Too, 1982). The British filmmaker’s cast expertly lip-synced to intimate audio interviews she had painstakingly collated over years; imagine a kind of Creature Discomforts, with flesh-and-blood actors instead of clay figures. The poignant experimentalism dazzled cinema audiences, but was entirely in keeping with the formal probing of fact-vs-fiction tensions in her short-video and installation work (which has been screened at Tate Britain and MoMA). Named after an Oscar Wilde fable about a giant who builds a wall around his garden to keep children out, her new film, The Selfish Giant, tells the story of two teenage wannabe scrap merchants in Bradford and marks a shift to more familiar British poetic social realism. Critical acclaim has been adulatory since its premiere at Cannes.
Dazed Digital: The Arbor seems to have had a profound influence on The Selfish Giant – and not just in naming your lead character ‘Arbor’.
Clio Barnard: The whole concept really grew out of The Arbor. When I first went up to the Buttershaw estate (in Bradford), I met a charismatic, volatile 14-year-old with ADHD called Matty. His family were Andrea Dunbar’s neighbours, and he was good friends with a boy called Michael. They were on the edge of the edge – not really part of the teenage group of boys. Instead they were busy using horses to go around Bradford finding scrap. I got to know them well, so really they were the inspiration.
Dazed Digital: Along with Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name?
Clio Barnard: I had this idea of a realistic, contemporary fairytale, I suppose, and that’s why I kept the title from the Oscar Wilde story – I saw it as about the dangers of excluding children, or what gets lost when that happens, and the wounds of love. The first draft was written from the giant’s point of view; then I realised that I was more interested in the friendship between Arbor and Swifty. It’s kind of a platonic love story about friendship.
Dazed Digital: The lip-syncing in The Arbor was so stylistically striking. Did you consider making The Selfish Giant in a similar way?
Clio Barnard: It’s a good question, because in some ways that formal technique of lip-syncing was critiquing forms of representation, especially around the working-class. There’s always this notion of authenticity, which I question: Direct Cinema and verbatim theatre are not more ‘real’ than any other form.
Dazed Digital: Exploring that tension seems to run through your work, from your shorts to The Arbor.
Clio Barnard: I guess what interests me when you make any artwork is what’s between the reimagined and the real thing. You’re never going to collapse the distance between those two things. So that formal approach was appropriate for The Arbor because it was a hybrid of documentary and fiction that wanted to expose those different layers. But The Selfish Giant felt like a more straightforward narrative fiction film. Part of the aspiration herewas to tell a simple, linear story.
Dazed Digital: Do you consider The Selfish Giant to be overtly political?
Clio Barnard: I don’t think artworks should be didactic and I can’t articulate my political beliefs by making a speech, but perhaps I can through making a film. But I’d like for it to be open to interpretation. Someone told me they thought the character of Arbor was a bit of an entrepreneur, which is not my politics at all!
“He’s actually a very shy kid but once he starts telling you a story, he’s there in that moment. That instinct for storytelling was very strong. It’s important to know that they’re bringing themselves to it but they’re not playing themselves”
Dazed Digital: At times I wondered if ‘the selfish giant’ of the title referred to the country or community that neglects these kids. Some scenes seem eerily reminiscent of the early 80s Thatcher years.
Clio Barnard: In a more literal way he’s (scrap merchant) Kitten, whom Arbor tries to emulate. But I think it’s about an ideology that’s been adopted and then gets mimicked. Arbor is searching for a role model and to become like Kitten he becomes selfish and ruthless and greedy. And I think that selfish and ruthless ideology is permeating things. So I see it as a fable about that really, and what gets lost if you take that on.
Dazed Digital: The two young leads, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, are incredible. How did you find them?
Clio Barnard: Obviously casting Arbor and Swifty was crucial. Amy Hubbard cast this and also The Arbor, in part from the school on the Buttershaw estate, so that’s where we first went back to. She actually saw Conner on the first day. And both me and the producer, Tracy (O’Riordan), independently thought, ‘He’s great, we have to see him again.’ For me it was his voice. He’s actually a very shy kid but once he starts telling you a story, he’s there in that moment. That instinct for storytelling was very strong and it was the same with Shaun. It’s important to know that they’re bringing themselves to it but they’re not playing themselves.
Dazed Digital: Andrea Dunbar was criticised for showing her community in a bleak light – did you worry about that? Audiences can be easily influenced – I love The Wire, but I’m in no hurry to visit Baltimore now...
Clio Barnard: I love The Wire too! Well, obviously The Selfish Giant isn’t a comprehensive picture of what life in Bradford is like – I grew up in that part of the world originally, and I love it. To have drama you have to have conflict, but I was aware of, how many times can we see the north represented as this tough and difficult place? It’s important to understand what some people’s lives are like and think about what our responsibility might be towards those people.
Dazed Digital: What’s your take on current British filmmaking?
Clio Barnard: It’s a really exciting time in British cinema, partly because of how diverse the films and filmmakers are – there’s not just one school of filmmaking emerging. I saw 12 Years a Slave and I thought it was phenomenal for Steve McQueen to be the person to tell that story, I’m incredibly pleased he has that ambition. It’s also exciting that more female voices are being heard – I don’t usually bang on about that, but I think it’s significant. Joanna Hogg, Carol Morley, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold... Penny Woolcock was a big inspiration for me.
Dazed Digital: How about the future of cinema in general?
Clio Barnard: I find it really hard to speculate about that. But the future of image-making has been completely revolutionised. Kids from a very early age now understand moving images in a way that generations before didn’t and can manipulate them. And they’ve got access to equipment. My son knows how to use Final Cut Pro and he’s 12! And he shoots stuff all the time.
“The big screen will always have a place. Nothing replaces sitting with an audience and being immersed by the sound as much as the image”
Dazed Digital: Do new platforms and technology appeal to you? You shot your 2006 short Dark Glass on a mobile phone.
Clio Barnard: There was a really specific reason – it’s about domestic photography and how a plethora of images might change films and photography in relation to memory. But the big screen will always have a place. I don’t think anything replaces that experience of sitting with an audience and being immersed by the sound as much as the image.
Dazed Digital: So you don’t advocate watching films on phones or tablets?
Clio Barnard: It’s not the best place, is it? But it depends what the film is – I was happy to watch Bridesmaids on an aeroplane and really enjoyed it. But then I also watched Amour on a plane and I know it diminished that and I need to watch it properly. By the way, Bridesmaids is a brilliant film too... (laughs)
Dazed Digital: Were you surprised by the acclaim your films have received?
Clio Barnard: With both films I didn’t dare to imagine, so it was lovely to feel I had communicated with people. Cannes was pretty remarkable really, and part of that was seeing Conner and Shaun understand what they’d achieved.
Dazed Digital: What about your own future projects?
Clio Barnard: I’m writing an adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass and also working with playwright Polly Stenham on an adaptation of her play Tusk Tusk. I’m not sure yet (what style to use) – each project develops its own logic and grammar.