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Clio Barnard • Director

“Sexual abuse is an impossible topic to deal with”


- TORONTO 2017: We spoke to British director Clio Barnard to delve deeper into her third feature, the Toronto Special Mention winner Dark River

Clio Barnard  • Director

British artist-filmmaker Clio Barnard returns to her Yorkshire homeland with her third feature, Dark River [+see also:
film review
interview: Clio Barnard
film profile
, which was screened in the Platform section of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival and was awarded the jury’s Special Mention (see the news). We sat down with her to further explore the delicate subject of sexual abuse, her relationship with professional actors and how she has evolved since her acclaimed film The Selfish Giant [+see also:
film review
interview: Clio Barnard
interview: Clio Barnard
film profile

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide to explore the topic of sexual abuse; was it difficult?
Clio Barnard:
 I guess that since the Jimmy Savile scandal, we have finally started talking about this issue in Britain. There has been much talk about celebrities or the church, but not so much about families, which statistically is where sexual abuse happens. It is an almost impossible topic to deal with in a fiction film. I had to face the challenge of understanding what this might cause in a family and what the psychological damage could be. Also, depicting something that sensitive via a medium that includes image, sound and action was a massive challenge.

Does this explain your reluctance to use flashbacks that pertain to that topic?
There were more in the script, but while editing it, we decided that the fewer we kept in, the more impact they would have. As we were talking to psychotherapists and scientists who deal with survivors, they mentioned a difference between the memories that we involuntarily recall and the intrusive ones. I was trying to recreate the memories that are intruding. It’s not that the heroine doesn’t remember; she knows, but when the memories come back and are so vivid, she doesn’t have any other choice.

You also did some extensive research on the matter; could you elaborate on that?
I spoke to Jackie Craissati, a forensic psychologist who treats perpetrators of sexual abuse, and she was incredibly helpful in terms of understanding what is done in these families. Usually, when it’s a father-daughter case, then the dynamic could be either aggressive-controlling or needy-controlling. In the film’s case, it’s the second one, as it is about emotional needs. I was constantly checking to see whether what I was doing was psychologically accurate, and I also spoke to the actresses to help them understand. Also, researcher Martina di Simplicico helped me to see the relationship between trauma and memory.

The rural landscape always plays an important role in your work; is there any juxtaposition with the urban one?
The countryside has become gentrified, and now the local population is being pushed back into the urban environment. Where I grew up, there was a farmer whose family were tenants for several generations. When I was doing my research, I went back to find him, but he was gone. The farm had been sold, so he was forced to move to the city without a job. To me, there is a clear relationship between the urban and the rural, but we tend to divorce them even if they are related to one another.

Was it easy to work with professional actors for the first time, and how did they adapt to their roles?
I was quite nervous because they are famous, and I hadn’t worked with professionals before, but in a way, as soon as you meet somebody, it’s fine. You need to be absolutely intimate with each other in order to work together, so that gets broken down pretty quickly. Sean Bean is a really amazing actor, and Ruth Wilson is quite committed and fearless when it comes to adapting to the psychological and physical aspects. It was intense, and she spent a lot of time with the same people who helped me to write the script in Yorkshire. She literally got her hands dirty!

What are the differences between this and your previous film, and did you make any changes?
There were many differences – one was working with two adult leads and very experienced actors, which was such a joy. I think I set out to make quite a faithful adaptation of the book, and that was difficult because I knew with The Selfish Giant that it would never be like that. That was where I evolved narratively, especially by having all these flashbacks. I wanted to transfer the experience truthfully in some way, but no experience is the same, and it’s very personal, very intimate, so it’s really hard to know. I hope that the audience can see that.

How did the collaboration with PJ Harvey come about?
I am a fan of her work, so I was over the moon when I received a letter from her because she had enjoyed my previous film. We got a chance to sit down and discuss the screenplay, and we found a way to work together on Dark River.

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