Form As Function – The Arbor & Certified Copy

By Ezra Stead

The Arbor, UK, 2010

Directed by Clio Barnard

Certified Copy, France / Italy / Belgium, 2010

Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

The Arbor, Clio Barnard's debut feature, takes an unusual approach to the documentary film. I am continually amazed by the odd synchronicities (or coincidences, if you insist) that crop up in my seemingly random viewing habits. For some reason, even when I’m not trying to, I often end up viewing two or more films within a short period of time that seem to have nothing to do with one another, only to suddenly find striking comparison points between them. Two of the past year’s best films – Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy – are a prime example of this phenomenon. Having been attracted to the latter based on what I had heard about its unusual approach to the documentary form, I watched it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Only the next day, I finally got around to Certified Copy, one of 2011’s other most acclaimed films, and found that it also had a very interesting formalistic approach that directly informed and commented upon its subject matter. Let’s start with The Arbor

Clio Barnard’s debut feature takes an unusual, but not unprecedented, approach to the documentary film: rather than interspersing “talking head” interviews with archival footage or dramatic reenactments, as more conventional documentaries generally do, Barnard created a sort of “audio screenplay” out of her recorded interviews, then employed trained actors to lip-sync the parts of the film’s real-life subjects. The result is both engaging and somewhat distancing, and manages to comment on the documentary form itself while simultaneously unfolding a compelling, harrowing story. The specific story is that of British playwright Andrea Dunbar (seen in archival interviews and other footage), whose work – including a play entitled The Arbor – is largely autobiographical, and the family she left behind when she died at the age of 29. Each of her three children had a different father, and they often disagree about what kind of mother she was, but the film primarily focuses on eldest daughter Lorraine (Manjinder Virk), who was fathered by a Pakistani man named Yousaf (Jimi Mistry). This mixed-race pairing was the source of a great deal of harassment and ridicule in the working class British town for which The Arbor is named, and young Lorraine grew up with the same sort of harsh treatment, which undoubtedly contributed to the drug addiction, depression and imprisonment that occupied much of her adult life.

The really interesting thing about this film is the way in which its technique, its form, is uniquely suited to telling this story. Despite taking place in a specific time and place, the mixed emotions and familial strife portrayed are universal; the working class neighborhood and people on display are the stuff of films by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but like those great filmmakers, Barnard subtly connects their lives to the human experience shared by the viewer. This is done in part by the very technique that makes her film so unique – we are constantly aware that the people onscreen are merely actors going through the motions of pre-recorded dialogue, but rather than completely distancing us from the emotional impact of the story being told, this knowledge only serves to increase our empathy. The fact that Andrea Dunbar’s work as a playwright was itself an attempt to communicate her own experience through surrogates makes this the perfect way in which to tell her story and that of her fascinating, dysfunctional family.

Certified Copy explores the question of the validity of a copy or reproduction of an artistic work. Abbas Kiarostami’s first film outside of his native Iran takes a similar formal approach to its subject matter. Beginning with the question of the validity of a copy or reproduction of an artistic work, as expounded by art historian James Miller (William Shimell), the film proceeds to explore this idea as applied to life itself, and its narrative as well as its cinematic form continuously return to the central idea of Miller’s argument: that the value of the reproduction, or copy, is that it can lead one to the original. Formally, this is expressed in a number of interesting ways, such as repeated compositions, dialogue alternating between no fewer than three languages throughout, and framing techniques that accentuate the subtext of the dialogue. Perhaps most striking is a scene in which Elle (Juliette Binoche) applies makeup in the middle of a long day spent with Miller, presumably in order to present to him a “copy” of her true self that will make him more inclined to seek out the original, the “real” her. The exact nature of their relationship is kept intentionally ambiguous; at first, it seems that they have only just met, but by the end it seems certain that they have known one another for years. Are they a long-married couple playing at a first meeting, or the reverse? The film delights in obscuring, rather than revealing the answer, and this is just one of many ways in which it playfully delves into the nature of reality. After all, what is memory if not a partially inaccurate copy of a past reality? Is it worse than the real thing because of its inaccuracy, or does that very inaccuracy often make it better?

Above all, Certified Copy is a film of ideas, and it comfortably settles in alongside Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), Waking Life (2001), and Before Sunset (2004) as one of the great conversation films of all time. Both Certified Copy and The Arbor consist largely of talking heads, but their unusual formal techniques combine with the fascinating subject matter at their core to make each film vital and far from boring. By the end of each, I found myself overwhelmed by the power with which those mere talking heads had gripped my imagination – The Arbor with its immediate and uncompromised window into the pain of the human soul, and Certified Copy with its striking ambiguity and insight into the realities we construct for ourselves. Of the two, Certified Copy seems to cry out the most for a second viewing, not only to further parse its many layers of meaning and subtext, but also because it is just so stimulating and enjoyable.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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