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Clio Barnard on her Bradford love story Ali & Ava: ‘Joy is an act of resistance’ | Clio Barnard

Would you like coffee?” Clio Barnard asks. “Is goat’s milk OK?” Ooh, that sounds exciting, I say. “There’s oat milk, too.” Barnard is scouring the fridge. “We’ve even got regular cow milk.” It’s early morning when I arrive at her house. Though, as she explains repeatedly, it’s not her house – she’s just renting it while working in London and Essex. It reminds me of Ali & Ava, her lovely new film. Every time Ali tells his friends that Ava is a teacher, she corrects him with “teaching assistant”. Details are important to Barnard.

“Right, would you like some breakfast?” She couldn’t be a warmer host. Then we sit down to talk, and suddenly she’s a bag of nerves. She loses her words, apologises for going blank, and looks to her producer Tracy O’Riordan for support. She eyes my recorder enviously. “I’d much rather be the person with the tape machine on the table asking you questions.” She pauses. “I’m quite a shy person, Simon.”

Barnard is also one of Britain’s most talented and original directors, largely responsible for putting Bradford on the movie map. All four of her films have been set in Yorkshire, three in Bradford. On the surface, the Bradford films are very different. The Arbor is an experimental docudrama about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar (best known for Rita, Sue and Bob Too), who grew up on a tough estate, mothered three children with three fathers by her early 20s, was undone by addiction, and died of a brain haemorrhage at 29. The Selfish Giant, loosely based on the Oscar Wilde short story, focuses on two boys excluded from school who set themselves up as scrap dealers selling to a ruthless merchant.

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Ali & Ava is a feelgood love story about a couple (wonderfully played by Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook) who find each other in their 40s while emerging from the wreckage of failed relationships. Ali is Bradford-born and from a Pakistani Muslim family. Ava is Bradford-born, white, and from an Irish Catholic family.

Ali works for his property-owning parents, and is something of a one-off – a landlord loved by his tenants. They meet when he delivers the daughter of his friends/tenants to the school where Ava is working as a teaching assistant. As their relationship flourishes, Barnard subtly explores themes around race, religion and older love without telling you she’s doing so. It seems such a simple film, but it is fantastically nuanced.

Put The Arbor, The Selfish Giant and Ali & Ava together and they form a magnificent trilogy about life on the margins. Barnard’s Bradford is bleak and beautiful, antiquated (horses and carts abound) and modern (few communities are as mixed). Smart, feisty characters are undone by circumstance or fate, in ways that nod to Ken Loach and Thomas Hardy. Her films celebrate resilience and critique capitalism without making grand statements. They show rather than tell; images trump speech – in Ali & Ava a lengthy monologue is about 10 words long.

This charming man … Adeel Akhtar in Ali & Ava.
This charming man … Adeel Akhtar in Ali & Ava. Photograph: Altitude

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her films is the way they echo each other. So the lead character in The Selfish Giant is called Arbor, after her first film. In Ali & Ava, Ava walks past the Arbor, the area of the Buttershaw estate where Dunbar lived, and in the distance we glimpse a blue plaque on the playwright’s old house. Listen closely and in the background you can hear the ghostly whisper “Andrea, Andrea”. Dunbar’s influence is still huge on her, Barnard says. Making The Arbor, meeting the people she did, changed her life.

Barnard, 57, grew up in “the middle of nowhere”, about 10 miles from Bradford. Her father, John Barnard, is a Keats scholar, now married to the acclaimed biographer Hermione Lee. Her mother Kate, an artist and singer, left the family for the jazz musician Mike Westbrook when Barnard was eight years old. She and her two siblings were brought up by their father. The separation was “painful”, but now she says she considers herself lucky to have four great parents.

Her love affair with film began at the age of 14 when she watched Mick Jagger in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s acid trip of a movie, Performance. It was on TV late at night, and she viewed it on a black-and-white portable in her bedroom with the volume turned down. What amazed her was its ability to mess with her head. “Here’s this real rock star pretending to be one, whose sort-of girlfriend is also in the film in this crazy threesome. There was something about the real and the fictional that was really fascinating. It blew my tiny mind.”

Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas in The Selfish Giant.
Horse opera … Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas in The Selfish Giant. Photograph: Allstar/Film4

Her love affair with the city where most of her films are set began around the same time, when she had a birthday party at Bradford ice rink. “There’s a little corridor that leads off to the DJ booth and I was whisked off the ice by this boy, taken down the corridor and kissed. It was great. It was a very romantic kiss.” Bradford was another world – exciting, risky, unpredictable.

After school, Barnard went on to art college in Leeds and Newcastle upon Tyne, where she initially drew and painted. Then she started to work with cameras, filming the images she created. Barnard moved to London, worked at MTV creating motion graphics, made experimental shorts films and taught film studies at Maidstone College of Art.

In 2001, she and her then partner, the artist Adam Chodzko, had their first child (they have two boys aged 21 and 17, and co-parent) and moved to Kent because they couldn’t afford a place in London. Barnard then started teaching film at the University of Kent. She was as fascinated by theory as practice, and wondered how she could weave the two together. She was still obsessed with the same thing that had struck her when first watching Performance – representations of reality, particularly in documentaries that claim to tell the objective truth. As far as Barnard was concerned, that simply doesn’t exist; truth and reality are dictated by what film-makers allow us to see.

The voice of a generation … playwright Andrea Dunbar, photographed at home on the Buttershaw Estate in the early 1980s.
The voice of a generation … playwright Andrea Dunbar, photographed at home on the Buttershaw Estate in the early 1980s. Photograph: Don McPhee/The Guardian

Before filming The Arbor she spent 18 months with friends and family of Dunbar, forging relationships and building trust. “There were 80 hours of audio when I met Clio, so the first thing I said to her was: ‘Stop recording,’” O’Riordan remembers. Is that an obsessive thing? “Sometimes I think I do get a bit obsessive, yeah,” Barnard says.

“Brokering these relationships takes time,” O’Riordan says. ‘The first time I went up to Buttershaw, people were just so welcoming. It was just the time you’d invested in those relationships.”

Barnard’s approach to film-making was journalistic, but she also wanted viewers to question the veracity of what they were watching. In Barnard’s case, necessity was the mother of invention. Those close to Dunbar were happy to be taped, but would not be filmed. So Barnard got the cast to lip-sync to the tapes of Dunbar’s family. The end result was haunting – the voices were genuine, while the lip-syncing constantly reminded us that what we were watching wasn’t real.

Dunbar’s Bradford became Barnard’s spiritual home. “The people I have met there are extraordinary. They are incredibly welcoming and generous, warm and open. Making The Arbor opened my eyes to a reality of some people’s lives that we don’t often see on the big screen.”

“We could have probably made eight films out of the Arbor,” O’Riordan says.

Barnard nods. “Scratch the surface of so-called ordinary lives and you find extraordinary lives.”

Music lovers … Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook in Ali & Ava.
Music lovers … Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook in Ali & Ava. Photograph: Altitude

She constructs her films by improvising scenes in workshops, then tightly scripting them and finally allowing the actors a degree of improvisational freedom in filming. The radical thing is that characters are based on specific individuals who then contribute to the making of the film via the workshops. Local people play small parts alongside professional actors. In The Selfish Giant, this was reversed – her two brilliant leads were local boys, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. (Nine years on Thomas is a professional actor, playing Ava’s son in Ali & Ava.) It’s an unusually collaborative, community-minded way of working.

One of the first people they met when making The Arbor was Matty Bailey, who became the inspiration for Arbor in The Selfish Giant. He was a hyperactive, streetwise 14-year-old chancer, always searching for scrap. Barnard went out scrapping with him, talked to his mother at length, and brought him on board for The Selfish Giant. When he failed to turn up to workshops, they simply moved the workshop to his family home. In one memorable scene, the police arrive at Arbor’s house to interview him under caution, and he insists they take their shoes off before entering the premises. That came direct from Matty – it’s what he always did when the police came knocking.

While filming The Arbor, Barnard and O’Riordan also met Moey Hassan – a DJ, actor and landlord. Moey ended up with a small part in the film, but Barnard had already decided she wanted to base a character on Hassan. When making The Selfish Giant she met a teaching assistant called Rio who had walked out of an abusive relationship with the father of her son. Moey and Rio were the inspiration for Ali & Ava, though they have not fallen in love with each other in real life. Until recently, they hadn’t even met.

In her new film, Barnard turns her camera on Holme Wood, another of Bradford’s vilified estates. Ali & Ava is a story told almost entirely through music. Ali is into bhangra, electro and Holme Wood hero MC Innes, while Ava adores country and folk. Ali gives her a lift home just after they meet, and is horrified to discover she likes country music. He thinks their friendship is over before it’s begun. “Oh that’s it,” he tells her. “I’ll pull up. That’s it for me.” They start to understand each other, fall in love and overcome obstacles, all through music. At one point they swap headphones, listen to each other’s songs, start singing and dancing to tunes they thought they hated, and find themselves connected in a moment of blissful chaos.

Barnard says she was determined that Ali & Ava would be a hopeful film. “I wanted to make something that honoured the people on Holme Wood and the city they live in, and the relationship Tracy and I have got with the city because we’ve been making films there since 2008.” She says it was particularly important to make something positive in a time when we so rarely hear good news. “The way Adeel talks about it is joy is an act of resistance, and kindness is a courageous act. And we’ve seen a lot of divisiveness from politicians for their own gain, but what I’ve witnessed on the ground is people actually being extraordinarily kind and supportive to each other. And I wanted to celebrate that.”

Despite the success of The Selfish Giant, Barnard has slightly fallen off the radar in recent years. When I mention it, she says she wasn’t really aware of ever having been on the radar. Again, she tells me how much she hates talking about herself. In a follow-up call a few days later, she’s the one who brings the subject up. “You know you mentioned there was a lull after The Selfish Giant. It was partly because I just wanted to be with my kids. My partner and I had recently split up, and it was so important for me to be a good mum as well as do good work.”

Water feature … Ruth Wilson in Dark River.
Water feature … Ruth Wilson in Dark River. Photograph: Dean Rogers/Filmrise/Allstar

Barnard’s last film, Dark River, was, for me, her least successful. The grim subject matter of her previous work had always been countered by the exuberance of her characters. But Dark River felt like miserablism by numbers. It had a bigger budget, a starrier cast (notably Ruth Wilson) and the Yorkshire it portrayed felt more generic than The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. Does she like Dark River as much as the Bradford trilogy? She pauses. “No,” she eventually answers. “But I stand by it.” Barnard says she was adversely affected by “a weight of expectation”. She struggles to find the right words, but suggests that the film did not grow organically like the others. “It was like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”

Barnard believes she has learned from that experience. Now she is adapting Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent for TV, again with a starry cast including Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes. Is she worried that she’s moving away from what she knows best? “No, it’s just a totally different thing; a different beast.” She laughs. “It’s a different serpent I’m wrangling.”

I get the feeling that she’s not yet done with her favourite city, though – that she may never be. As I leave she tells me how remarkable Rio is, and that Ali & Ava barely touches on the way she went to university, got a first-class degree and became a fully qualified teacher after leaving her abusive husband. Yes, there’s definitely unfinished business back in Bradford.

Ali & Ava is in cinemas 4 March.

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