Active since the early 2000s, British director and writer Clio Barnard has been widely lauded by the film-loving public and in the international festival scene for her Ken Loach-esque, ‘kitchen sink’ realist yet subtly poetic documentary-style films which place a perspicuous lens on working-class Britons. Barnard’s hauntingly tragic, poignant tales illustrate the social deprivation rife in modern Britain, offering bold and sensitive explorations of an array of socio-economic and political themes, from crime and broken families to addiction and gentrification, all from the stark position of society’s marginalised.
Born in the small market town of Otley in Yorkshire, Northern England to a university lecturer father and an artist mother, Bernard pursued her interest in art and filmmaking from an early age, eventually earning a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts from Northumbria University in Newcastle and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Electronic Imaging at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. Bernard’s striking filmic prowess became starkly clear from the beginning of her career; in 1988 the neophyte filmmaker’s post graduate video, Dirt and Science – featuring British sibling duo artists, Jane and Louise Wilson – toured internationally as part of the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Biennial of Independent Film & Video and was curated by leading Academy-Award winning British actress, Tilda Swinton.
Bernard’s inaugural film, Lambeth Marsh (2000), an explorative, eye-opening short documentary framed by English Romantic poet William Blake’s lyric “London”, depicts modern life in Inner London’s urban district of Lambeth during the late 1990s. The distinct yet emblematic tales of a number of area’s inhabitants – including street cleaner David Hill, baker Andreas Demetriou and windscreen cleaner Dermot Keaney – ubiquitously highlight the contrast between the district’s metropolitan landscape and its former marshlands. In Bernard’s follow-up TV film, Random Acts of Intimacy (2002), she places similar emphasis on ordinary, day-to-day individuals in the exploration of sex with complete strangers, through the accounts of a diverse group of individuals – from a young woman who finds release in a club (Isla Fisher) to a man who has a chance encounter on a train (Robert Beck).
Bernard not only directed but also wrote and produced her third production, Flood (2003), a 15-minute long family drama depicting the trying predicament of young Polly (Samantha Grey), who lives in a secluded country village with her father (Dermot Keaney) and siblings, following the nearly decade-long absence of her mother (Rebecca Palmer). The film reveals the acute emotional struggles which plague the family as Polly attempts to assert her existence as an independent feminine force outwith the shadow of her mother, while her father experiences a deep turmoil which causes him to desperately cling to memories of his deceased wife – the sombre, powerful drama received a nomination for the Gold Hugo for Best Short Film at the 2003 Chicago International Film Festival.
A significantly more immersive, experimental filmic approach can be found in Bernard’s Dark Glass (2006), an 8 and a half minute, single-shot drama filmed using a mobile phone camera – a film which is not as simple and comprehensible as it appears to be. The intimate yet opaque psychological film’s vividly ethereal, otherworldly images illustrating the idyllic childhood memories recalled by the film’s protagonist (Jenna Russell), stand into a stark disunion with its soundtrack which features the voices of the protagonist and a hypnotist (Robin Weaver), engaging in a therapy session. Dexterously, Bernard toys with standard conventions of time and spatial continuity by presenting visual and sonic elements which falsely appear to be depicting identical circumstances, revealing her endeavour to highlight both the fallibility of memory and the necessity of engaging in a certain type of ‘performance activity’ during the process of memory recollection, itself.
Several years later, the auteur returned to the big screen with her critical acclaimed, BAFTA-nominated debut feature, The Arbor (2010), an avant-garde quasi-documentary portraying the tragic tale of late Bradford-born playwright Andrea Dunbar. In some sense, the film exists as an extension of Dark Glass in its exploration of the blurred boundaries between concrete reality and psychic fabrications, demonstrated by Bernard’s inclusion of the real voices of the people who were familiar with Dunbar – including her eldest and youngest daughters, Lorraine Dunbar aka Samaya Rafiq (Manjinder Virk) and Lisa Thompson (Christine Bottomley) respectively – all lip-synched by actors. Subsequently, Barnard wrote and directed her second BAFTA-nominated project, The Selfish Giant (2013), an unabashedly gritty yet sensitive social drama following working-class Bradford teens, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), whose embroilment with local criminal, scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder), leads to dolorous strains on their friendship.
Currently in post-production is Bernard’s 3rd feature film, Dark River (2017), a haunting mystery thriller depicting the buried familial strife that is unearthed following the return of Alice (Ruth Wilson) to her home village for the first time in 15 years. The journey which she initially undertakes to claim the land which she believes to be rightfully hers leads to tumultuous encounters with her estranged brother, Joe (Mark Stanley) and the re-surfacing of a slew of traumatic memories. Unmistakably, over the course of her nearly two-decade-long directorial career, Bernard has remained staunchly loyal to her raw, lyrical portraits of the severe plights – in its many deleterious forms – endured by Britain’s socially deprived classes, making for a truly gripping cinematic experience.