If, like me, you can’t quite believe in the Batman, here’s an alternative. The opposite, you might say. Clio Barnard’s mission as a film-maker is to work as closely to everyday life as possible. Her debut feature was The Arbor (2010), a highly original combination of documentary and drama, about the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, the author of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, who died aged just 29 in 1990 of a brain haemorrhage.
Barnard (who grew up in Otley, ten miles north of Bradford) based The Arbor on two years of audio interviews with Dunbar’s surviving family and friends. She then combined these recordings – lip-synched by actors – with footage of Dunbar and performances of her plays (filmed outdoors on the Buttershaw council estate where Dunbar lived, in front of curious locals) to produce a novel hybrid form, as truthful as possible while simultaneously acknowledging its own artifice.
Powerful as The Arbor was, the lip-synching technique has not been much followed in serious film-making since. Barnard admits she was inspired by Creature Comforts, in which recordings of the public are paired with claymation zoo animals – and lip-synching is now standard fare for TikTok trends and Twitter comedians, alienation reliably achieved merely by having pompous men’s voices mouthed by young women.
Clio Barnard’s career, however, remains closely linked to her debut and her immersion in the Bradford community. Her terrific second feature The Selfish Giant (2013), about a pair of excluded schoolfriends who steal scrap metal, was inspired by boys she met on the housing estate while making The Arbor. A more conventionally social realist drama, much in the line of Kes, it was made extraordinary by the performances of the then 13-year-old Conner Chapman and 15-year-old Shaun Thomas, both from the area.
Shaun Thomas returns in Ali & Ava, a film again based closely on people Barnard got to know in the area. Her approach remains, she says, “fictional biographical portraits, made in collaboration with the people who are being represented”.
Ali (played by Adeel Akhtar, the hapless Faisal in Chris Morris’s Four Lions) is a man at a bit of a loss in his early forties. A part-time DJ and landlord, Ali has no children and is separated from his beautiful, better-educated Bengali wife Runa (Ellora Torchia), but they are still living together and he dare not tell his extended British Pakistani family about the split.
Ava (Claire Rushbrook, Roxanne in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies) is a kindly, second-generation Irish immigrant and grandmother of five now working as a classroom assistant, having taken a degree after separating from an abusive, alcoholic, racist husband. Their son Callum (Shaun Thomas) still idolises his late dad and treasures the very bovver boots with which his own mother was regularly stomped.
Ali and Ava meet because they both care for Sofia (enchanting Ariana Bodorova), a little girl from a recently arrived Slovak family. Ali is the family’s benevolent landlord, often taking Sofia to school, while Ava helps her weather the playground. The pair, both looking for love, soon discover their musical tastes are quite different – Ali bounces around to techno and rap, Ava is lulled by country and folk – but, still, as they listen each to their own on headphones, they find they can dance together. There’s great use here of music within the narrative: Ali even becomes a convert to Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind”.
Ali and Ava’s relationship develops, despite the rancid hostility of Callum. Both are wholly good and entirely likeable: the film is a gentle, fond account of their discovery of love, despite their differences. It’s made with real respect for the kind of people rarely seen on the big screen – and is extremely well acted in a low-key style, with sparse but effective dialogue, naturalistically shot. Barnard and her cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland even make the lights of Bradford at night, seen from the Undercliffe Cemetery, look as glamorous as LA from Mulholland Drive Overlook.
The subplot about Callum and his bovver boots is too neatly resolved, and Ali & Ava lacks both the pony-trap-race excitement and symbolic resonance of The Selfish Giant. Unusually for a film in this tradition, it makes almost no economic or political references either, staying committed to its own world. The optimism is endearing, though – even if it might leave you pining for superheroes whizzing through the air and bouncing off buildings.
“Ali & Ava” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times