Film Study: Visual Act In Documentary Film

Film Study: Visual Act In Documentary Film

The Arbor and The Visual Act In Documentary Film

Top Image: “The Arbor” Dir. Clio Barnard (2011)

Within the last decade the documentary film structure has seen a shift from the traditional structure to one that gravitates towards the use of fictional film techniques. One such film that utilizes these techniques is The Arbor (2010) directed by Clio Barnard. Unlike most documentaries of the modern era this film has a hard time being framed within a specific classification due to Clio utilizing fictionalized techniques from both fictional film and theater. So a discussion will be made toward the actual classifying of this film and how such classification is very difficult since it does utilize fictionalized sequences in a very specific way.

Great measures will also be taken to showcase that this film does not use the standard form of re-enactments as seen in many other documentaries. The argument will be made that there are no true enactments in the film, but rather the fictionalized sequences we see are story driven visual acts that tie directly into the subject matter. Meaning, since the film is initially about the playwright Andrea Dunbar and her play The Arbor, a choice was made by Clio to use that theatrical element of Andrea’s work and ingrate it into the structure of the film. So, an argument will then be made that these visual aesthetic choices are what make it so unique to other documentaries that utilize similar fictional techniques. To further support this a question will be presented and answered. What does this film say and how does it say it?

Finally the argument will be made that the structure of this film, the interviews, actors, setting and shot selection all come together to make The Arbor much more than a simple a documentary film. We will then look back at the previous points and discussions made to show that in the end the film should be seen as a hybrid film that lives within the world of fiction as well as reality.


Classifying the Unclassified

Classification can sometimes be difficult no matter the medium whether that be film, music, or even art. The need and the desire to have everything labeled and placed within a nice frame has been an important aspect of human thinking as far back as mankind’s humble beginnings. It has become even more so in today’s technological world. With a multitude of gadgets and devices that run various types of media and applications; societies head would spin if they were not all categorized and classified under certain names and parameters.

Films are no exception. No matter whether they are narrative or documentary we place films under certain labels based on subject, style and emotional response. Now, if one wanted to they could just label any documentary film expository, as nearly every documentary film can be labeled as such. However that would be too easy and in the end a disservice to the filmmakers and the films themselves to just give them a one-size fit all classification. The varying films we create are much more diverse than that and deserve a much more diverse classification.

So, let us look at The Arbor and ask some very important questions. For instance, how can we best classify this film? Does this film even have a classification? Does it need a classification? Can this film even be contained by classification? Let’s try and answer these questions by starting at the beginning.

How can one best classify this film? Right away we can place the film under the umbrella of expository, as we know and have discussed this is a one-size fit all classification as the film does explain a situation and describes the causes and effects of that situation. But rather than just throw this into the expository pile let us expand our classification. Remember we are not thinking in terms of giving it a concrete classification yet, if that is possible, but rather we want to place the film into different subsets to see if it fits. So next lets looks at three classifications that seem to be the closest to fitting the film’s structure and those are Story Documentary, Docu-Drama, and Performative.

Story documentary seems to be the most unlikely fit for the film at first glance. It’s only when taking a step back and looking at The Arbor in a much wider view that it doesn’t seem as far fetched. Because with a story documentary we will most often see a traditional three to four act structure with specific goals in mind. Now, when looking at the initial character Andrea Dunbar and the fact that she was a playwright, the idea of this being a story documentary seems to fit a little more. As the structure of Andrea’s theatrical work and the structure of the story documentary begin align. Then one must take into account that director Clio Barnard actively utilizes the act structure of a play to a certain degree. So now there is even more compelling evidence that this could be a story documentary structure. But before we get too far, lets hold off on giving this a stamp of approval and look to docu-drama.

Now docu-drama is a classification that modern audiences know well. The use of dramatized re-enactments of actual events is commonplace on television and is becoming more so in documentary film. So, when looking at The Arbor can we see evidence of dramatized re-enactments of actual events? Absolutely. However, we can’t really call them re-enactments. While they do dramatize actual events from the individuals who lived it, these dramatizations are not “re-enactments” as much as they are visual acts of events that took place. We will discuss this in much more detail shortly, but we can say at this point that The Arbor does somewhat fit within the classification of docudrama.

So, lets look at the final classification. Performative.

The conscious awareness of the camera in today’s society has seemed to shift the perception of Performative as a classification. For instance one would view performative as a documentary film genre reliant on performance from the subjects. In today’s world with today’s technology the idea of performance has taken on a new meaning. But in regards to The Arbor the subtext of performative would seem to be more about the audio recollections and then performance of those recollections. So in this sense the film has a very deep distinction to the classification of performative.

In the end it is incredibly difficult to pin down a specific classification for The Arbor. Which is not a bad thing at all. Not having a specific classification for a film is okay, especially one like this. As we will discuss shortly the use of imagery and structure in relation to the subject is a unique one and therefore possibly deserves the unique distinction of not being classified at all. In Betsy A. Mclane’s book A New History of Documentary Film (2nd edition 2012), we can find a very interesting and useful theory from experimental and documentary filmmaker Su Friedrich where she speaks to giving her own work a classification by using the term “begrudgingly” saying, “I don’t know whether anyone could ever coin a term that would be large enough to embrace the huge range of work made under this current name. But I still have to say that I dislike and disavow it.” (352)


Visual Acts Replace the Reenactment

As discussed briefly The Arbor dramatizes actual events to relay the story told from the perspective of the individuals who lived them. However as already mentioned this film does not simply re-enact those events, instead we will say that the film tells its story through visual acts. Now lets explore what the difference between re-enactment and visual acts are. Then determine if our initial assessment of the film is correct and where the inspiration for this structure came from.

A basic explanation for the term re-enactment is the re-creating of events already past based on historical text or individual first hand experience. In this way re-enactments and fictional techniques have been used within the structure of documentary films as far back as Robert Flaherty and his film Nanook of the North in 1922. Fast-forward sixty-six years later and we have Errol Morris using the reenactment in order to play out perspectives of a crime from various witnesses in the film The Thin Blue Line (1988). Then at the turn of the century re-enactments became more widely used in documentary films such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March (2004) and Road to Guantanamo (2006). However with each one of these films the recounted memories of the individual interviews was recreated with a sense of reality, to show things, as they would have appeared to happen based on the testimony given. This is not the case in terms of the structure of The Arbor as for this film visual acts were used.

First, visual acts are the relation of seeing a division of a play or opera in a theatrical artistic form. Therefore in this film we have a visual representation of the spoken words of each interviewee, presented in an unconventional way. In essence a contradiction to what John Ellis says documentaries present which is they, “seem to offer proof,” and that, “We believe them to show us people and situations as they are.” (Ellis 98) So, instead of doing what Ellis suggests, filmmaker Clio Barnard takes the recounted memories of Andrea Dunbar’s friends and family, specifically her daughters, and recreates those memories in a more visual centered theatrical approach. Stella Bruzzi was quoted as saying that “a documentary will never be reality nor will it erase or invalidate that reality by being representational.” (Green 72) And that is the key word here, especially for The Arbor. Representational.

Every voice in the film has a face, but those faces are not the individuals speaking. Rather the faces we see are representatives, theatrical actors that mirror Andrea Dunbar and her work as a playwright. When Andrea would write and produce plays based on the actual accounts of her life, she did not have the actual people from her life up on stage recreating those moments. No, she used actors to stand as the representatives for those people in those moments.

Audiences understand this and so did director Clio Barnard, who with the structure of the film has taken a page straight from the world of the theater and utilized a similar structure by taking these representations and crafting them in a hyper-realistic way.

An example of this hyperrealism is during the opening of the film where we hear Andrea’s daughters and we see their onscreen representatives speaking about a house fire that took place when they were younger. Instead of showing actors in a recreated environment struggling to escape as it might have happened, Clio takes the actors and places them center stage within the recreated space. Audio of the actual daughters plays allowing the audience to hear their memory and gain a tonal understanding of the event. The visuals then play out along with the audio, much like two actors would play off one another on stage. So, as the voices of Andrea’s daughters speak to us we see their representatives on the screen standing quietly and calmly within a burning bedroom. This composition is a striking and moving one for the audience as the representatives for the daughters address us directly as the bed rests just behind them engulfed in flames. This scene is very fitting for its placement, that being at the beginning of the film, for it sets a visual and audio tone that stays constant throughout the film.

It is safe to say that this is not the work of a re-enactment. There is no realism in this moment other than the audio testimonials of Andrea Dunbar’s daughters. No, it is clear that this film composes for itself visual acts of the spoken word, a hyper realistic representation of the actual.

Now, the question becomes, where did the inspiration for this style and approach come from? The answer to this question is given just over halfway through the film in a scene that has a two-fold effect for those of us looking to critique the film and understand its layers. It’s a scene that gives us insight on where the inspiration for the structure of The Arbor comes from, but then also presents us with the turning point for the film.

In this scene we see Lorraine, or rather the actress playing Lorraine Andrea Dunbar’s eldest daughter, on stage speaking and reciting a passage from A State Affair (2001) a play written by Robin Soans. This play is particularly important as director Clio Barnard uses it as the foundation for her style and approach, that being the visual act. However the play also works as the vehicle to shift the focus of the film in a very subtle way.

A State Affair is a play written from the perspective of the individuals that it portrays. Meaning, the actors from the play would go out and conduct interviews with the actual people they would be portraying. Once the interviews were completed these actors would return and memorize these interviews and the responses. When the play would be conducted these actors would lip-sync to audio tracks while acting the scenes out. So it doesn’t take us long to see the correlation between this play by Robin Soans and the structural techniques used by Clio Barnard for The Arbor.

What is incredibly interesting about A State Affair is that one of the individuals interviewed by the stage performers was Lorraine, Andrea Dunbar’s eldest daughter. And it is this interview and this event that Clio uses as the vehicle to shift the focus of the film.

As the representative of Lorraine is on stage reciting her own quote from the play A State Affair, her sister and other family members sit in the crowd and will shortly comment on the quote from the play. But just moments before this in a subtle and interesting twist we see archival footage of Andrea Dunbar herself sitting in the dark spaces of an empty theater. Then our vision is taken back to Lorraine on stage. And then the shift happens. A wide shot from the back of the theater is shown. In the foreground we see Andrea Dunbar silhouetted by light in the empty seats of the theater looking on as Lorraine stands on stage delivering the quote from A State Affair.

It is this subtly designed visual act the narrative transition is completed. No longer is the film a story about Andrea Dunbar, her life and her work. It now becomes Lorraine Dunbar’s story and the effects her mothers life and work had on her.


Aesthetics of Visual Acts and What Do You Say and How Do You Sat It?

Aesthetics are important in all forms of art. The beauty of shape the pleasing nature of color and line. These are the core aesthetics of the painting and drawings we see upon the walls of our art gallery’s. Our responses to these aesthetics are just as important as the meaning behind them. They are the driving force for why we create a piece of art. Or why, as the viewer, we feel emotion when looking upon it. Theater and film are no exceptions to this rule.

As was stated The Arbor does not make use of re-enactments. This would seem to be a counter productive device in which to structure the film. For as we now understand re-enactments are the retelling of the actual as it could have happened. It is based solely on reality and leads the audience by the hand through that reality. Visual acts as used in this film work to present the aesthetics through the setting, the frame, the color and the interaction. In essence it’s a theatrical production-taking place partly in reality and partly in the crafted world. Many fictional films accomplish this, but rarely is it done in documentary films. But, like a painting clinging to a canvas whose creator chose specific aesthetics to bring the work to life, director Clio Barnard has done the same with The Arbor.

With all this said an important question remains, a question that can only be answered by looking at the text of the film and the aesthetics used to convey that text.

What does the film say and how does it say it?

Through aesthetics the text of the film encourages the audience to engage with the visual and audio material and to learn about the subjects in an unconventional way through a theatrical structure. The visual acts play out, as we have discussed not like a re-enactment, but rather a theatrical play. This text also conveys to the audience a narrative, and in this narrative the overall sense is that of domestic unrest in both the world of Andrea’s daughter but then also in Andrea’s childhood as well. It becomes the classic trope of history repeating itself.

From this presentation the audience is moved to reach varying emotional peaks. Examples of this can be seen through the visual acts and heard through the audio interviews. The text presents much of the context of narrative to the audience through the use of mirroring. Our discussion on visual acts pointed to this, that being the text of the film is presented in a manner similar to the subject and that is the theatrical stage.

For an example of the text giving the audience such a presentation, we can look to a scene in the film where Andrea learns she is pregnant with her first child. As the scene plays out the audience initially sees that we are located in a grassy field in the middle of the neighborhood. We also see people from all around the neighborhood looking on. They watch as actors portray the characters from the play, the people from their neighborhood. For the audience watching the film things start off from a similar onlooker’s perspective. We find ourselves watching, along with the neighborhood, Andrea tell her then boyfriend of her pregnancy. The text then presents his reaction that comes in a non-approving manner. The audience’s emotional scale is tipped as she says he could find a way to make her lose the baby.

Given the context of the scene and the fact that it plays out in front of a great number of onlookers from the neighborhood, and that we the audience are placed amongst them, the text is pushes the audience to have a full range of feelings toward Andrea. This structure is no different than any other fictional or documentary film.

There is sorrow for her and her situation as the boyfriend speaks of ways to get rid of the baby. Then there is embarrassment for Andrea as the audience realizes that they along with the onlooker’s are voyeuristically watching a private and crucial moment in her life, but then remembering that this really isn’t Andrea. And we remember that this private and crucial moment was given over to the text of the theatrical play, which Andrea herself developed.

However the aesthetic choice of adding the audience in the background of the composition allows the text to force the audience into responding to it. And questions arise because of it.

Why is the neighborhood just standing and watching this visual act?

Are these actors or are they the actual people from the community?

What is the purpose of having them stand around as spectators?

All of these questions run through an audience members mind while trying to absorb the text and make sense of it. Some audience members will read that the onlooker’s are a reference to those who would watch Andrea Dunbar’s theatrical plays. While others would read that the text is presenting the onlooker’s as they are. A community of people within a neighborhood, where no secrets are safe. It is this latter idea that is reinforced through interviews with neighbors as well as Lorraine. Where she speaks to a time when the neighborhood was a community of people who talked amongst one another and knew the lives of one another. And then alludes to the fact that this is no longer the case, that the neighborhood is disconnected.

This context, presentation, emotional response, and questioning was all made possible by the text of the film. So, now that we know what the text says, that it’s presented the audience with a narrative and a context with various perspectives we can look to the second part of the initial question.

How does it say it?

As we have touched on before the use of visual acts are of grave importance to The Arbor. Not only are these visual acts aesthetically pleasing for the audience and truly envelope the audience into the world of the character. Its hyperrealism reflects the theatrical world of Andrea Dunbar and her presentation of her life for audiences to see. The text gives us a set of truths. Interviews within the film as well as the Andrea’s own words reinforcing these truths. Then by using fictional film techniques merged with theatrical techniques director Clio Barnard has created a perfect amalgamation of reality, hyper reality, and fiction.

Some would argue that Clio takes the visual acts too far and that those willing to be on camera should have been allowed to do so. Some would say that the fictional style in which the film is presented creates a conflict, one where fiction cannot be used to gain truth. However Linda Williams made an interesting point in her article Truth, History, and the Thin Blue Line where she said, “Documentary is not fiction and should not be conflated with it. But Documentary can and should use all the strategies of fictional construction to get at truths.” (Williams 72)

In the end fiction filmmaking should be seen as a type of art and when looking at The Arbor it is very clear that what we are seeing is a visual type of art with deep artistic qualities. In fact Clio Barnard recently said in an interview with the Artangel Podcast that she calls herself a “an artist filmmaker.” (Artangel 3:19) By taking that type of approach Clio took well-known structures from artistic fictional films and theatrical play and merged them together to create something unique that allowed the text to convey a complex story in a very visually expressive and performative way. And it is this latter word, performative, and its connection to performance that we shall discuss next.


Performativity and the Artificial Illusions of Reality

Performance is a key ingredient in The Arbor. As discussed it draws part of its structure from the performance of the theatrical world. So, now the question becomes is the film nothing more than an illusion of reality or a truthful performance of reality?

Illusion of reality would imply that the film is a fictional retelling of something that happened in the past, but may not be entirely accurate to the actual events. Thus it gives the illusion of reality. There are moments where one could argue that The Arbor does this. Where the visual acts that have already been discussed could easily be viewed as an illusion of reality. For example every character and every interview in the film is an illusion of reality. Because as we know every character in not the actual person giving us the dialogue. Right at the onset we realize that there is an illusion of reality happening. But just to say that this film is nothing more than an illusion of reality would seem to be a disservice to the complexity of the film. So, lets look at truthful performance of reality.

Truthful performance of reality can be talked about from several different angles, but for the purposes of this discussion we will look at it as the performance during a visual act that takes its structure from reality. Now, we know that Andrea Dunbar created theatrical plays based on her life, or based on reality. With this said we could look toward the sections in the film where we are receiving visual acts that show us Andrea’s life before she had children. We see her troubled home life with her mother and father, we see her encounter with the local boys of the neighborhood, and we also see her with her boyfriend the moment she tells him she is pregnant. We see all of these moments, but each and every one of these is a staged visual act.

What we end up having are scenes where actors are brought in to play out sections of Andrea Dunbar’s theatrical plays. And in turn these scenes reflect actuality and reality since they are taken straight from the theatrical plays written by Andrea about her life. Here is where we can say the film generates a truthful performance of reality. Even though Andrea herself is not present for these scenes of reality, her words and feelings regarding those scenes are. Her essence is there for us to see in the words she wrote and the past performances of her plays that she would guide.

So as we look at both the illusions of reality and the truthful performance of reality we can say with a great deal of confidence that the text of The Arbor draws upon both to convey its message. When looking at the complexity of the film as a whole it makes sense that this would be the case.

One other interesting point to all of this is by using both illusion and truthful performance director Clio Barnard gives herself tools in which to control the image. In reality every director, no matter the documentary subject has control over the image. Not so much the reality happening in front of the lens, even though that has been known to happen, but rather the control over what the images captured say and how they are put together to say it. This realization requires a lot of trust between the filmmaker, the subject and the audience. Probably even more so for The Arbor.

At the same time, we the audience, having seen the disclaimer at the very beginning of the film, which tells us the testimonies given were recreated using actors, place an enormous amount of trust in Clio to present to us a cohesive story based on reality. It is essentially a trust that every documentary filmmaker must maintain. But one that becomes a little trickier for Clio given the lack classification, the use of visual acts, the specific aesthetics, and the performance in The Arbor.

Since there is no archival footage of the Andrea in her early childhood, or of Lorraine and Andrea’s other children. There is a great amount of trust being given to Clio, the director, to put the visual acts together in a manner that best reflects the actual. But there is a significant quote from Clio in the Artangel Podcast where she talks about the very first scene of the film where she asks Andrea’s daughters about the bedroom fire and she finds that they both remembered the fire, but they both remembered it quite differently. “It makes you aware really of that fact that anything told in the present where you’re talking about the past, you’re always on slightly unstable ground.” (Artangel 5:20) This brought a real awareness to Clio that even when speaking about actual events there is a level of performativity that we as humans naturally do. However that should not diminish the reality of those experiences.


There Is No Documentary Only Reality

In conclusion, it must be noted that my love for this film has callused my critical notions somewhat. It has become increasing hard to be critical of the film. While critical analysis is vitally important to digging to the core of the film and learning the intent behind it, I find that with The Arbor the intent and core of the film is easily accessible. But, for the sake of argument I want to use this conclusion to also explore a few critical questions that are incredibly apparent upon first viewing.


One, question that comes to mind is whether or not this film is a pure docudrama. While there have been discussions about this and points brought up to support this idea. Such as the use of the actual characters voices overlaid with staged visuals. Since the film has so many complex layers to wade through, and draws upon so many different classifications as we have discussed, to place one single classification to it would seem to be a great injustice to the film itself.

Another question would be why the actual characters of the film were given a voice, but never allowed to be physically present? This is a question that is found to be the most common amongst those who watch the film. There have been those who were completely turned away from the film just because of the disclaimer at the very beginning, which tells the audience that the film uses actors to portray the audio interviews. This alone has been a reason for criticism. And in some ways it’s valid. But the counter argument again would be that the film draws inspiration from the characters and their work through the use of visual acts and the structure of the theatrical world. This gave director Clio Barnard a great amount of leeway to tell a compelling story in a manner that reflects the subject. And a clear reflection of the Andrea’s work was the use of actors to portray her life on stage.

A final question, which can be tied to the previous question on visual act, could be one about the level of performance, and the use thereof. Is there any semblance of truth behind the performance of The Arbor? As has been discussed the answer for this question should be yes. But again there are those who oppose the use of a performance of this kind. They would cite that it is not the actual individuals in the reality of the moment that is visually telling the story. They could also cite Caryl Flinn from her article in Documenting the Documentary where she says, “Traditional wisdom maintains that one should not stage or imitate reality; instead the documentary filmmaker is supposed to capture it.” (438) Even with this said we must look again at the inspiration for the narrative, and that’s the story of Andrea Dunbar a young playwright. Just as she lent her personal narrative to actors to be portrayed on stage, her children and those from her life lent their voices to be portrayed in a truthful manner on screen. Such is the nature of The Arbor, by using the natural performative construction based the theatrical world of Andrea Dunbar. Or as Caryl Flinn would continue on in her article, “documentary films, in many ways more so than other cinematic forms, reveal the constructed – indeed, performative – nature of the world around us.” (438)

So, what we’ve learned in our discussion is that there is really no classification for The Arbor as its draws upon so many. That the use of visual acts is merely a reflection of the life and literal work of Andrea Dunbar and that the aesthetics in those visual acts shaped the emotions and opinions of the audience. We also looked at the performative nature of the film, and learned that it utilizes both illusions and truthful performance. So in the end we have found is an abundance of positive analysis towards our original claim that The Arbor is not just a simple documentary. And that when taking that objective step backwards and looking at the film from a critical perspective it becomes easy to see how the film is unique. It is a hybrid film, one that draws upon several different classifications and structures in a complex way. Which in the end makes sense given the nature and complexity of the story of Andrea Dunbar’s life and her daughter Lorraine.




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