This is Clio Barnard’s second feature and I feel much the same about it as I did about the first, The Arbor, in 2010. It’s extremely well made with excellent performances and it acts as a challenge to anyone who has a complacent view of the lives of working-class families in the less salubrious parts of the UK’s major urban areas. I admire it very much but it disturbs me. The film is again set in the housing estates of South Bradford, but this time less precisely than in The Arbor. Indeed, the camerawork at times uses shallow focus to obscure road signs and blur backgrounds so that we can’t be sure exactly where the story is set.
Audiences in Bradford have been very healthy for what is a specialised film with only a restricted distribution to cinemas. The bigger than average audience I was part of was noisy and appreciative in the early stages of the film but very quiet at the end. As usual for a film of this kind, the major public reaction has come from metropolitan critics who don’t venture up here that often – they can treat it as an art object, safely ‘cased’ in a specialised cinema, but to me it feels much more compelling as a form of public document. A couple of features of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation are important for the narrative. Bradford has a large and dispersed population as a ‘Metropolitan District’ – over 500,000 people, many of them living in smaller communities in rural areas. In both Leeds and Bradford the richer leafy areas of middle-class accommodation are mainly to the North of the cities and the ‘badlands’ are to the South. It is the latter that are featured in The Selfish Giant. I live in the Northern part of Bradford Met and I don’t make any claim to know the area the film is set in. Perhaps that’s what leads to my discomfort – so near yet so far in terms of what the film depicts.
I’ve seen references to ‘post-industrial’ Bradford and even Clio Barnard herself has made references to Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold as well as the Dardenne Brothers in terms of ideas about social realism. I think that these comments should be approached with some caution – simply because these different filmmakers tend to focus on different aspects of an overall realist approach. For instance, I don’t think that The Selfish Giant has much to do with the view of a working-class mining community in 1969 offered in the Barry Hines/Ken Loach presentation of Kes (which Barnard herself compares to the horse in this film), but there certainly is a parallel of sorts with the Paul Laverty/Ken Loach world of Sweet Sixteen set much later in 2002 in post-industrial Greenock.
The inspiration for The Selfish Giant came from the Oscar Wilde short story with the same title. I haven’t read the story but I understand that it involves an ogre/giant who at one point prevents children from playing in his beautiful garden with the effect that the garden dies until children find a way to sneak back in. The theme of the story appears to be redemption, ultimately involving a form of Christian religious allegory (I was surprised to learn this). Barnard certainly pursues the idea of exclusion and offers some kind of hope at the end without resorting to religious meaning (as far as I could see). She creates a kind of magical tale that involves tragedy before the final sequences. I can see that there might be some connections to the Dardennes Brothers’ stories – and particularly the most recent ‘inspired by fairy tales’ story of The Kid With a Bike. In the same way, I can see a kind of ‘magical’ touch in the presentation of the urban meets rural landscape that is also there in Lynne Ramsay’s wonderful Ratcatcher.
In all of these films there is the warmth of a humanist depiction of families in difficult situations. Is it there in The Selfish Giant? I think it is, but it is presented with a bleakness and the almost complete absence of social structure/social networks – in short, any sense of community apart from the culture that surrounds the scrapyards of South Bradford. Clio Barnard has spoken about the research she has done into the traveller communities in the region and this is evident in the depiction of the scenes featuring illegal ‘trotting’ races using ‘sulkies’ – two-wheeled lightweight carts – on major roads in the early hours of morning. The film has to tread a fine line in these kinds of representations – there is a danger I think that they might be viewed through the lens of the reality TV camera. Bradford has been the subject of several recent reality TV programmes. The most recent of these, Bradford City of Dreams on BBC2 in May this year, was actually quite a decent stab at representing the city’s diversity but I am reminded of the scene in La haine when the youths chase off a TV crew who have come to shoot on their estate for a news report on local protest marches. What Bradford needs most is investment and economic regeneration rather than more attention from cultural commentators.
The two central characters who are ‘excluded’ are Arbor and Swifty, 13 year-old boys excluded from school because of behavioural problems, marginalised in society generally because of poverty and unemployment and struggling in families with other social problems including alcoholism and drug use. Swifty escapes into communion with horses but Arbor is more active in seeking to earn money ‘scrapping’ for anything he can find. This leads the pair into the dangerous world of copper cable theft and into the ‘giant’s den’ – a local scrapyard run by ‘Kitten’, an unscrupulous dealer who also owns a prize trotting horse.
I don’t need to spell out what happens in the narrative. The dangers associated with stealing copper wire from the railways, electricity sub- stations or telecommunications hubs are obvious. I suppose what disturbs me is I can’t see any way out for the lads. There isn’t any political solution or indeed any form of collective action put forward to rescue these communities from their exclusion. I can quite understand why Nick Lacey, as a local teacher, despairs at the depiction of the school that excludes the pair (see his blog entry). And watching them in the opening scenes make off with a length of cable stolen by other scrappers from a local railway line isn’t really ‘magical’. I’ve sat on too many trains delayed by signal failures after cable thefts.
That opening scene by a railway line reminded me of Ken Loach’s The Navigators, so I wasn’t too surprised to find that The Selfish Giant was shot by the same cinematographer, Mike Eley. There are other names that stand out in the crew including Harry Escott for the music and production design by Helen Scott. It’s great that Clio Barnard and her collaborators have had international festival success and the shoot did bring a production team to Bradford, but perhaps we could have a comedy next time?