Heavy Metal: Clio Barnard on Junkyards, Heroes, and Fairytales in The Selfish Giant

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Image credit: Sundance Selects

In 2010, Clio Barnard made her presence in the film world known with her bold and experimental debut film, The Arbor. A documentary tracing the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor rejected conventional form, using actors to lip-synch interviews Barnard had conducted with her subject’s family and friends. The move was controversial—and raised questions regarding the role of authenticity in non-fiction film—but this was just the point: Barnard didn’t just explore Dunbar’s life, she re-staged it.

While filming this ambitious project, Barnard got to know some of the local boys who also called Dunbar’s British housing estate home. Tenacious and curious, the kids would hang around the set looking for scrap metal, in hopes of making some quick cash. Three years later, what might have been a mere behind-the-scenes anecdote became the inspiration for the main characters of Barnard’s following film, The Selfish Giant (2013).

Loosely based on the Oscar Wilde 1888 story of the same name, here best friends Arbor and Swifty, played by 13- and 15-year-old locals Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, are bullied at school and hustled at home. One night they catch two men attempting to steal copper cable from the railroad tracks. The boys nab it instead, and by selling it attract the attention of Kitten (Sean Gilder), a bearish scrap dealer who plans to take full advantage of their precarious social positions.

As is the case with any British director dealing with class and labour, Barnard’s film has drawn comparisons to the “kitchen sink movement.” This genre of British film, of which Ken Loach remains the king, was marked by its social realist style and emphasis on class—in a state known for its reverence of monarchy and empire, here, the heroes were the down-and-out, the coal miners, the homeless. In the case of The Selfish Giant, the parallels are clear, yet Barnard’s work differentiates itself from a purely Loachian tradition. Barnard engages with the harsh socio-economic realities of contemporary Britain—which here recall a Dickensian brutality in contemporary times—yet her vivid eye for detail and love for chiaroscuro produces contrasted and wondrous imagery. Filled with dualisms (nature, junkyard metal; boys, men) The Selfish Giant takes the tone of a fable, warning of the fragility of life.

cléo: How important is social critique in this film to you?

Clio Barnard: Very important. When I was making The Arbor, I got to know a lot of kids—one boy in particular called Mattie. I felt frustrated that I didn’t have an on-the-ground understanding of what people’s lives were like in that situation. That’s why I wanted to go back and make another film there [The Selfish Giant]. I felt upset, I suppose, that often kids in that situation get blamed for circumstances that are beyond their control, and often are criminalized and demonized. So this idea of taking a Victorian fairytale about children, but telling a story of contemporary childhood of teenage working class boys was really to say: “We idealize these children, we demonize these children!” They’re children, too, we need to remember that.

cléo: There’s a wonderful scene in The Selfish Giant where one of the boys is bringing a junk load on horseback and the cars are lining up behind him. If feels like two completely different worlds are colliding: The Victorian and the modern.

CB: Yes, and the boy The Arbor is based on, he did have a horse and buggy. I admire him because he may not have seen it this way, but his holding up traffic was a political act.

cléo: Did you consciously make Arbor [Conner Chapman] a hero of the story?

CB: Yes, that was a big part for me. I wanted people to understand his value because he’s being written off, in a way, by the education system. What I’m saying is: don’t write him off, he’s got these incredible qualities. It’s quite interesting in terms of reactions to him, because generally people don’t like him in the beginning. He makes a lot of wrong decisions, but his intentions are good in the beginning. Then they become corrupted by Kitten [Sean Gilder], an adult who he’s looking up to.

cléo: In The Arbor you used the special technique of real-life interviews lip-synched by actors. Why did you choose the more traditional fictional dramatic form for The Selfish Giant?

CB: Those formal techniques in the The Arbor were critiquing the notion of realism and authenticity. That was the reason I used them, to say there’s always a gap between what’s reality and what’s a presentation of it. In a way, with The Selfish Giant I embraced the language of realism. But I still don’t believe in it. That’s why I wanted it to be a fable. To be in the tradition of realist fables. In a way, The Arbor was an experiment, a kind of formal interrogation. Whereas in The Selfish Giant, I kind of accepted an existing form and worked within it. I worried a bit that one might contradict the other when I was in the process of doing The Selfish Giant, but I think what I see subsequently is that in a way, there are similarities. That’s why it was very important to me to keep this connection to Victorian fairy tale. How can it be a fairy tale, a fable, but also be authentic? There’s a gap.

cléo: What do you think of being compared to your contemporary British peers, like Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold?

CB: I’ve met both of them. Steve McQueen in the art world and Andrea Arnold and I have the same agent. I really loved Hunger, and I really loved 12 Years a Slave, and Shame I liked, but not in the same way. Steve McQueen is a visual artist and I can see it in his work, particularly in 12 Years a Slave, in the shot where Soloman [Chiwetel Ejiofor], if he puts his heels in the ground, will be hanged. The length of time he holds that shot has a phenomenal effect on the audience because you become very aware of where you are and what’s around you. It puts you to the similar position of people around him, having to ignore what is happening to him. We’re all kind of complicit in it, turning away and not looking. I think I could feel the rigour of an artist’s thinking in that shot. Of what it means to be in an auditorium and looking at the screen. The responsibility of the audience in terms of what they’re doing when they’re interacting with the film. I found that incredibly powerful.

cléo: In The Selfish Giant, the Victorian and the present society seem to co-exist. It feels like history collapses, that everything is happening the same way it may have happened before, although in reality there are different societal structures that have been built in between. It feels timeless.

CB: I wanted it to have that timeless quality. The boys use horse and carts and collect scrappers (you see that on the streets of Bradford), but it harkens back to the times of the Victorians. Kitten is in a way a Dickensian figure. I was very aware of referencing the past but also it being a possible vision of the future, because the resources are diminishing and what they’re doing, though out of necessity, is very green. They’re not using cars, they’re recycling them!

cléo: The main characters are not part of the consumer society, they make their living out of the decay of that society. It seems like people that are within the consumption society leave it for people excluded from it to sort it out.

CB: I think that’s really true. In places like Detroit as well, people are stripping what’s left of the industry and recycling it. I guess I also thought of the exploitation of children during the Industrial Revolution and how it was an incredibly productive time for industry, but bad for children. This is a kind of post-industrial time where in this vacuum there are kids are being exploited, and they recycle what’s left of it.

cléo: I want to talk about the look of The Selfish Giant. There’s something almost fantastical going on in many scenes, but also very naturalistic lighting.

CB: The DP, Mike Healey, and I talked a lot about how it should look. I wanted it to be naturalistic and realistic with an edge of something else that wasn’t heavily stylized. He did an amazing job with the lighting and softness and colour palette. I had written a director’s note about the role the landscape played in the boys’ lives. I got into this idea of liminal spaces and liminal people, of teenagers as liminal people who are on the threshold of not being a child and not yet being an adult. Then there are these spaces that are neither urban nor rural, where there’s a gap because something has collapsed. There’s quite a lot of unused land and waste where horses graze. There’s something very peaceful about these places, these abandoned, post-industrial landscapes.

cléo: Because they’re not meant for any particular purpose?

CB:  Yes. They’re a place that the boys can claim and inhabit. Like a game: ”This is our land and we can do whatever we want here!”

cléo: The fragility depicted in The Selfish Giant struck me. The activities the boys perform: cutting high voltage cables, horse racing among cars… It’s a matter of living and dying.

CB: We need to value our children, I suppose. One of the things I came to understand in the process of making this film was that the kids who live in this area called Homewood, they’re very skilled horse people, and it’s part of their culture. When we filmed in that neighbourhood, the housing association wouldn’t allow us the permissions necessary. There’s an embarrassment about that community. The city of Bradford seems to feel ashamed. It’s the same with Andrea Dunbar, in her neighbourhood people still feel ashamed that she’s shown the darker realities of that place. I guess I can understand that, but in a way it frustrates me. Embrace [Dunbar], because she’s fantastic, an incredible writer! Embrace these boys because they’re brilliant, skilled!

This interview was conducted during in February 2014 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Jutta Sarhimaa holds a master's degree from University of Helsinki, where she focused on political philosophy. She is a film critic for Helsingin Sanomat, Scandinavia's largest newspaper.

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Jutta Sarhimaa holds a master's degree from University of Helsinki, where she focused on political philosophy. She is a film critic for Helsingin Sanomat, Scandinavia's largest newspaper.