The Selfish Giant Clio Barnard (2013 Uk) Connor Chapman; Shaun Thomas
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 22 Nov 2013 Ticket: £7.50
Film as an act of grace…
Clio Barnard's eponomous movie credits itself with being inspired by Oscar Wilde's fairy tale. Judging from what has been written about the film, most reviewers have obviously not read the Selfish Giant and think that the film is based on the story. It's certainly not. As the end credits state: it is inspired by the story. Wilde's work (possibly co-authored with his wife) is a transparent allegory on the working of grace and embued with religious symbolism. A morally improving work such as Oscar possibly read to his children. So there is a question that can be asked: what inspirational element in the Selfish Giant does Clio Barnard's film draw on?
The Selfish Giant is set in the alienated lumpen welfare world of Bradford. A world abandoned to social agencies characterised by dependency and criminality. It was described by Andrea Dunbar's 1980 play the Arbor which was also set in Bradford. So it is no surprise that Clio Barnard's first film was a documentary about Dunbar and her play. So this is a territory and a social strata very familiar to Barnard who references. Dunbar's work directly in the Selfish Giant by giving her lead boy protagonist the name, Arbor. Thereby laying claim to a direct line of provenance and descent.
The Arbor, named after a road on a sink estate, opened up an abandoned world of intergenerational deprivation. Andrea Dunbar, herself a teenage single mother born on the Arbor, lived and described a culture often characterised by economic desperation and degraded relations between people. Women laid claim to life by serial procrearation; many men lived off the women in bonds defined by violence and/or made out through crime. Drugs and alcohol abuse were an endemic part of life on the Estate both as a palliative and a way of life.
Dunbar in the very act of her writing shone light on and gave an actual recognition to the lives she described. Her observations including those of herself, staked out a claim for acknowledgement that her people were also a part of social matrix. The condition of their lives a price paid by them for the wealth of others.
The Selfish Giant takes from where up the Arbor's setting and situation leaves off. But as it develops, moves beyond it, extending out into a dimension that goes beyond Dunbar's work reaching out into a sort of mythology.
The opening shot is a wide night time shot of a field of horses. A shot chartacterised by both its urban setting and its stillness. There are a number of these sort of shots throughout the film: electricity substations, giant cooling towers, the moon. Shots that suggest in their manner and pacing, something of the film's expressive code . Although contemporary in setting these shots have a quality that locates them in a zone outside of time, before before written history. They are derived from an originary world of primal forces, where the pacts of survival are between men and nature. not between men and social agencies. The actual world inhabited by Arbor and Swifty, documented in the first section of the film, is dominated by forces of control; as the scenario develops these forces fade and the shape of destiny is moulded by other possibilities.
The story is set in the world of the scrappers. The scrap yard bears no resemblance to the Giant's garden, except its wall which has two functions. But like the Giant's garden, the scrap yard has allegorical meaning. It's a place where people who have been scrapped live off society's junk and trash. The scrap yard is a mythical zone, like Hades or the caves of the dwarves. Those who work there are outcastes, unclean and tainted beings. What happens in the yard is a source of mystery: Out of the chaos those who recognise the true value of scrap turn base metal into riches. It's a form of alchemy. And , as the work of the scrapper is to return everything they touch to its originary form. Put to the fire stripped of all outer sheathing and markers the legimate and the illegimate become one, an indistinguishable molten mass. The scrap man has the laugh, everything is finally reduced to money, and his money in the melting pot of society built on respect for wealth, is as good as anyone else's. It pays the bills. I
Of course the scrapyard in Selfish Giant locates a story that directs the actions of the characters, But the impression is that Barnard is not so much interested in the mechanics of narrative, rather the location of the stream of events.
Barnard does not accept that her characters are bound by the destiny of deprivation. Arbor, troubled as he is, and Swifty, lacjing confidence, are drawn to and seek out another reality for the entrapped doomed male. And they find it through the portal of the scrap yard. The yard releases them into primary contact with elemental forces: the animal totem, fire, precious metal copper, and the ferocity of nature. Through the scrap yard they are at least partially take on the mantel of Celtic Princes. Freed from the immediate scrutiny of agents they become aristocrats of their own making, and aas well as reeping the rewards have to pay the price for this. Freedom that is won always cmes at a cost. The Selfish Giant is not about horse race, criminality or social relations. All these have a place in the scenario. It is about spirit. A spirit that cathects, energises its protagonists in an elemental contract and in so doing ennobles them.
The purpose of the film is relocation of its subjects. The selfish giant removes its protagonists from the realm of judgement into the realm of mythe. Barnard simply points to a possibility. She employs film as an art form and and uses film as a means to induce another way of seeing, another way of looking at the world presented. And that surely is one of the ways in which art works upon us: to help us to see.
Inspired by the Selfish Giant. I think Clio Barnard's film is an act of grace. As the Selfish Giant was transformed by his realisation, so the she transforms her characters from base into pure, from dead end sink estate kids into Celtic princes. But this case, the act of grace has to come from the audience.