Clio Barnard: Verbal Expressions

“In a way with The Selfish Giant and this film, The Dark River, I suppose there is something about forgiveness” reflects writer-director Clio Barnard. With their rural setting, both films forge a spatial, as well as a thematic connection that is in contrast to the filmmakers debut feature documentary The Arbor, about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. The Dark River tells the story of a dispute between Alice (Ruth Wilson) and her elder brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Following their father’s death, she returns to the family Yorkshire farm for the first time in 15 years to claim the tenancy. Her return dredges up traumatic memories, made all the move difficult as she struggles to reconnect with her brother.

In conversation with ASFF, Barnard reflects on her evolving relationship with image and sound, the ambiguity of inspiration and pursuing the new amidst stability.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
CB: It was when I was at art school, using film to make records of my drawings that I gradually moved away from sculpturing and print making to begin making films. I fell in love with it, and at that time of watching movies and falling in love with cinema was when I realised it was the medium I wanted to work in.

ASFF: Can you perceive a way in which your early creative experiences have informed your approach to the filmmaking process, even shaping you as a filmmaker?
CB: I think it has informed it completely because a lot of the work I was looking at in art school was conceptual film. So it had a big influence on how I conceived, as well as my thinking around a formal approach to The Arbor. I suppose because I started in the visual arts, I was thinking about image and sound in another way before I started to think about it as working with actors or narratives, which came later for me.

ASFF: Across your three feature films has your perspective on the process changed?
CB: I’ve now embraced narrative and working with actors, and so it has changed a lot. I’ve built collaborative relationships over not just these three films, but also the work I did before those. There’s Tim Barker, a sound designer I worked with, composer Harry Escott, editor Nick Fenton and producer Tracy O’Riordan. You become a team of key collaborators and there are those things that I suppose stay the same, in that where the film is set and rooted is important to me. Then there are obviously things with each film where you want to try something completely different from the thing that you’ve done before.

ASFF: Was this desire to try something different the spark of interest for The Dark River?
CB: It began life as an adaptation of a novel and then became inspired by the novel rather than as an adaptation of it. I also read a lot of Ted Hughes poems, particularly his volume of poems called Moortown when he was working as a farmer, and part of what I tried to do in the film was to think about water as a metaphor. It is of course quite hard to pin down where different influences come in because it might be a very strong image of something that you build out from.

ASFF: Picking up on your point about paying attention to space and approaching water as a metaphor, the landscape accentuates the contrasting internal and external strength and frailty of both Alice and Joe.
CB: Both of them are in their own way trying to be strong, but they have been damaged by what happened in the past. Her strength to keep forging ahead is also her undoing because she has a lot of internalised anger that has been damaging to her ability to find intimacy, or to have intimate relationships. So Alice’s strength actually comes once she has expressed her rage and for him, he thinks he’s being strong by being angry, but it is actually the opposite for Joe too. It is when both of them allow themselves to be vulnerable that they then find their strength.

 ASFF: The film is structured around psychology – the act of repression and confrontation. The suspense emerges from Alice’s flashbacks, memories that are complicated by the unreliability of their abstract form. Through these you create a silent tension, before the act of verbal confrontation that completes the psychological journey.
CB: It is about what has been unspoken and needs to be spoken, yet is unspeakable, and it is quite a challenge to try and communicate that. Ruth and Mark are brilliant actors and they were able to do so much without talking to one another, which meant we were able to take dialogue away. We found it was stronger the more silence there was, until that moment when they are finally able to speak to each other and by the end look each other in the eye. I think there’s a hope at the end that a new kind of relationship between them may be possible.

ASFF: Whilst tragedy is an evocative experience, is it important to offer hope, even if it is only a glimmer?
CB: Well, in all three of my films there is some glimmer of hope and I do think that’s important, but it is also important that it doesn’t feel like false hope. If you make it too comfortable and you wrap everything up too easily for the audience, then you don’t leave them with enough questions. If you are going to ask people to think about something, it’s better to leave them with questions than feeling reassured [laughs], because I think we otherwise don’t act.

The Dark River is released theatrically on 23 February by Arrow Films. Find out more.

Paul Risker

1. Still from The Dark River. Courtesy of Arrow Films.