Clio Barnard – “The idea that film can deliver reality is nonsense”
Cinema needs clear thinkers like Selfish Giant director Clio Barnard. Trained as a visual artist, she brings a critical eye and a seriousness of purpose to her film-making. She talks to Donald Clarke
When Clio Barnard’s film The Selfish Giant was unveiled triumphantly at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last May, more than a few critics bandied around words such as “naturalism” or “neo-realism”. The grim, touching story of two boys trying to scrape a living on the outskirts of Bradford, Barnard’s picture follows in the tradition of earlier tough classics such as Kes and Nil by Mouth. The performances are rough and unshowy. The story is loosely structured. But Barnard is wary of the realist delusion.
“I guess I got interested in this expectation that film can deliver reality – which is a nonsense,” she says. “I was trained, as a visual artist, to be rigorous about that. The founders of the Direct Cinema movement would say this is more real because now we move the camera. That always seemed like a false aspiration to me.”
Cinema needs clear thinkers like Bernard. A tall, thin Yorkshire woman, she easily zips from critical analysis to playful quips in the space of a friendly clause. It is not altogether surprising to learn that she came to film through the world of the visual arts. She has the seriousness of purpose that such training often instils. The daughter of an academic, she seems to have spent early years in the ideal environment for a future artist.
“I grew up on the edge of the moors,” she says. “It was romantic when the weather was good. It was bleak and beautiful. I really felt a great connection with the landscape.”
That comes through in The Selfish Giant. There are some extraordinarily bewitching shots of superficially unattractive vistas.
“Yes, my favourite shot is the one with the cooling towers and the sheep. They seem benign and beautiful to me. We could have made that sinister. But we chose to go the other way.”
Bernard eventually made her way to art school in Leeds where – if she isn’t being modest – she tried hard to paint, but couldn’t quite get her head around the oils. Then an original style of stop-motion animation began to work its way organically into her work. Using a hand-cranked Bolex movie camera, she began taking images of her work and, without really willing it, Bernard found herself turning into a film-maker.
“I made an experimental film and did some work for galleries,” she says. “I also made a short narrative film and developed a feature that didn’t get made. Then I went back to the National Film School because I thought if I am going to make narrative film, then I had better learn the language. I could think about framing, but I needed to learn how to work with actors.”