BAFTA-nominated writer-director Clio Barnard’s 2010 debut feature, The Arbor, an experimental documentary about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, won her significant acclaim, including the Best New Documentary Filmmaker honor at the Tribeca Film Festival and the British Newcomer and Sutherland awards at the BFI London Film Festival. Now, inspired by the people and stories she discovered in Bradford, West Yorkshire (U.K.) while making The Arbor, Barnard continues shining a light on “so-called ordinary people,” bringing another Bradford-set story to the big screen. Greenwich Entertainment releases feature film Ali & Ava, starring Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar, in theaters on July 29.
In the film, music enthusiast Ali (Akhtar) struggles to keep his recent separation a secret from his family. Teaching assistant Ava (Rushbrook) is the matriarch of a close-knit household. When a chance encounter brings them together, Ali and Ava recognize their shared love of music and begin a tentative friendship, which unexpectedly blossoms into romance. Barnard crafted her midlife love story through workshops between the actors and the real-life residents of Bradford who inspired their characters. While making her first film, the director had met amateur D.J. and landlord Moey Hassan. He would become the model for the character of Ali. When she returned to Bradford for her second feature, she met single parent and teaching assistant Rio, who became the basis for Ava. Though they inspired the film’s characters, Moey and Rio haven’t fallen in love in real life.
Barnard discusses the unique genesis of her new film with Boxoffice Pro and shares her experience of seeing Ali & Ava on the big screen for the first time at the BFI London Film Festival.
You’ve previously described your films as “bio-fiction.” Did you use a similar workshop process to find Ali & Ava’s story?
Yes, it was a similar process. They were inspired by real people, as the boys in [Barnard’s 2013 film] The Selfish Giant were inspired by real people. So that was the starting point. I guess the difference [this time] was the adult actors that I was workshopping with, specifically Adeel Akhtar, who was involved in the project from the get-go. We kind of workshopped the story and then I went back to the script, and then I went back to the people who inspired the characters. It was a kind of process of workshopping with the real people and with the actors, in order to arrive at a script.
What were those workshops like? What were some of the tools you employed?
Improvisations around the scenes. We did one workshop with Rio [the woman who inspired the character of Ava]. She was kind of watching and correcting, saying, “Well, it wouldn’t be quite like that.” Or “It might be more like this.” There was a lot of involvement from Moey and Rio, who inspired the characters. And the tenants in the film are Moey’s real tenants.
Music is so key to the film. As Ava and Ali share songs with each other, they also begin to share more of themselves: Ava loves country and folk, while Ali favors punk rock. It’s a musical way of stepping into someone else’s shoes. How did you go about putting the soundtrack together?
Yeah, I love working with music. At different stages, different songs came up, I suppose. The Bob Dylan song [“Mama, You Been on My Mind”] was pretty woven into the script. Quite a lot hung on whether we were going to get the rights to use that or not, which involved me writing a letter to Bob. Then other songs were things that we kind of found along the way: the Daniel Avery song, that became kind of increasingly important [to the story], as did the song “Radio,” that Ali is playing on his headphones when he’s dancing with Ava on the sofa. I guess music plays a part when people fall in love. I really wanted that to be part of the fabric of the film.
The Arbor is an experimental documentary that incorporates fictional elements, such as actors lip-synching to recorded interviews. What elements of your background in documentary filmmaking do you find most helpful in creating narrative films?
All three films set in Bradford—The Arbor, The Selfish Giant, and Ali & Ava—they all come from making The Arbor, which was a documentary, although it’s a film that partly explores what documentary is, in a way. It’s like a hybrid between documentary and fiction. The two fiction films really have grown out of that. So I’d say [the feature films] are very influenced by making the documentary. In The Arbor, there was a boy called Mattie Bailey. He and his best friend inspired the two best friends in The Selfish Giant, so they’re based very much on real people. In a way that’s what then led me to use that similar process in Ali & Ava.
I love the way that your films pay homage to your previous work, with the character Arbor in The Selfish Giant recalling your first film about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. She kind of makes a cameo in Ali & Ava, right?
Yes, Ava walks down the street, which is called Brafferton Arbor, because in our fictional world her daughter, Michelle, lives on that street. On the wall in the background, there’s a blue plaque; after we made The Arbor, we put that up to say this is where Andrea Dunbar lived. In the U.K., you know, they put up these blue plaques to say so-and-so lived here. Then there’s a bit of of someone calling her, calling “Andrea, Andrea,” that the sound designer and I have actually used in all three films. So yeah, a little echo of her within Ali & Ava that is kind of a little tribute to Andrea.
Working on The Arbor brought you to the area and to these stories.
Absolutely. 100 percent. Yeah, I wouldn’t have made the films otherwise, really. It was really because of making that film that I got to know a very particular street and a very particular group of people. I got to know and love them and feel that there were important stories to be told from so-called ordinary people and their extraordinary lives. Wanting to put that on the big screen and feeling like those stories have a place on the big screen.
When were you able to see Ali & Ava on the big screen for the first time?
It’s a really good question, because of the pandemic of course, and it being delayed. So it felt like a long wait for me and for the other people involved in making the film. The first time for me was at the London Film Festival last October. We finished shooting the pick-ups [minor shots or scenes recorded after principal photography has concluded] in February 2020 and then went into lockdown. I wasn’t able to go to Cannes, which is actually where it had its premiere. I was shooting something and because of Covid, I wouldn’t have been able to come back onto the set. So the first time I saw it on the big screen was October of 2021.
What was that experience like, getting back into the theater and getting to see your work for the first time on a big screen?
Usually, I finish something and then quite quickly it’s up on the screen. But because it was a bit of a wait, I had distance on it. Which was a good thing in some ways. The London Film Festival had been remote the year before, so it was the first time for a lot of people, being in the theater again. It was at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank in London. So it’s a big cinema, and it was full. The sound was fantastic; it was really loud. Good sound. It was a really great experience actually. As we all know, songs are really designed to be [heard] on a big screen with a great sound system and surrounded by a lot of people. So it was really blissful.