Clio Barnard –
Kitchen Sink Revisited
Essay by Alexandra Seitz
Bildrausch is paying tribute to Clio Barnard, one of Britain's most important contemporary filmmakers, and is bringing her artful opus to Switzerland for the first time. In her young, multi-award-winning opus, Clio Barnard focuses on the adverse fate of human existence in her native Yorkshire. Using a semi-documentary approach, she illustrates everyday tragedies of the northern English underclass with hyper-realistic images, and brilliantly combines bitter realism with symbolic exaggeration. Fully aware of the deceptive dimensions of truth and artifice, she always remains close to her characters as a storyteller.
Clio Barnard was born in 1965 in Santa Barbara, USA, and grew up in Otley, a small town in West Yorkshire. Yorkshire is the largest county in the north of England, where forests start to thin out, and the countryside tends to be rugged and defined by moors and heaths, making it ideal for sheep farming. In the past, Yorkshire, with its many spinning and weaving mills, had a thriving textile industry; in addition, coal mining in countless mines and collieries as well as the Sheffield-based steel production industry contributed to the economic importance of the region. Yorkshire is considered a rich cultural region and is proudly called “God’s Own County” by its residents. This even though there is not much left of its former glory; the mines and steelworks have closed, the textile manufacturers have gone elsewhere, and people tend to be poor. The omnipresent sheep, as is their nature, are not fazed by this decline.
The Yorkshire dialect is called “Tyke”, and is quite a challenge to understand, as it borders on being its own language. Yorkshire was the home of the Brontë sisters, and Yorkshire is where musicians like Joe Cocker and Soft Cell come from – as well as the notorious terrier, which originated as the dog of poor people who bred it to hunt rats and mice, but which also proved its worth hunting rabbits and in dog fights. Why are we mentioning all this?
Because it’s important to Clio Barnard’s work. Barnard, who teaches at the Film Studies Department at the University of Kent, started her filmmaking career as a video artist. In her work – short films and installations that have been exhibited at Tate Modern and MoMA among others – she explores the diverse relationships between the formal languages of documentary and narrative cinema. Her three feature films – the experimental documentary The Arbor (2010) and the two features The Selfish Giant (2013) and Dark River (2017) – are deeply and firmly rooted in Yorkshire. But her films don’t have the unpleasantly hypocritical aura of the idyllic that often characterises the works of other filmmakers who celebrate their homelands. And there is always a core to Barnard’s stories that lifts them from their regional foundation and raises them to universal significance.
In a way, her cinema is in the tradition of so-called kitchen-sink films, which take an unembellished look at social conditions. The films of this genre were made in the context of the eponymous “Kitchen Sink Realism” movement, which defined the theatre, arts, literature, cinema and TV of the 1960s, and which aimed at a realistic representation of social life. Typically set in the industrial regions of northern England and among its working classes, kitchen sink stories deal with class, race and gender issues, usually with a prototypical “Angry Young Man” at the centre of the openly discussed conflicts. Barnard, on the other hand, consistently uses the point of view of women and children – in other words she complements the genre with “Angry Women and Children”: In The Arbor, the dramatist Andrea Dunbar – who died at an early age – and her children are the focus of the story; in The Selfish Giant, the action revolves around the two marginalised 13-year-old boys Arbor and Swifty; in Dark River, the surly outsider Alice fights against what happened to her as a girl.
But interestingly, the relentless look at bitter realities shared by all three works is rooted in literature: in Andrea Dunbar’s plays (which themselves were considered reverberations of Kitchen Sink literature), in Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Selfish Giant” and in Rose Tremain’s novel “Trespass”, which inspired Dark River. In this connection between reality and fiction, real events and their artistic abstraction, we find Barnard’s filmmaking credo, which in an interview with the London Evening Standard (17 Sept 2013) she expressed as follows: “I think I’m a bit suspicious of naturalism and realism. Life is complicated and doesn’t really have neat storylines. There are always several different versions of a story you could tell at any one time, so it’s more fractured and complicated than that. I think that’s why I want to put the two together somehow: the artifice and the real”.
But Barnard not only brings together the artifice and the real, she manages to make the seemingly antagonistic concepts harmonise with each other. For example, in the alienation and distancing techniques that she uses in the documentary portrait film The Arbor, she on the one hand makes theatre itself the topic that defined Dunbar’s short life, and on the other hand creates a respectful distance to the highly painful and tragic life story of Dunbar’s eldest daughter Lorraine. There is also a double nature in the devastated post-industrial landscapes that Arbor and Swifty roam in The Selfish Giant. These landscapes document Yorkshire’s glorious past as much as they at times could also be the setting of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film. And there is a similar bond between melodrama and family drama in Dark River, where flashbacks disrupt the temporal sequence as much as they bring elements of horror and psycho-thriller into a story of attempted trauma-processing, which in turn is set in an authentic agricultural environment.
What also stands out: it is not just the location of the story that defines the figures, but also their social background. The economic conditions linked to their origins determine the opportunities that are open to them. In this respect, the virulence of the British class system is forever visible in Barnard’s films – a virulence that is especially noticeable in the north of England. From this follows a decidedly anti-romantic view of the ultimately propagandistic idea that everyone can achieve anything in their lives, as long as they are willing to strive for it. Barnard counters this idea with a tightly woven causal tapestry of family, social class and region, which suggests the need for a radical and fundamental change of circumstances. But until that happens, people can only keep on forgiving each other, again and again – as Dunbar’s daughter forgives her mother, Swifty’s mother forgives Arbor, and Alice forgives her brother – for misdeme- anours whose seeds were sown far earlier and by other people.