“I was thinking recently about the nationalisation of electricity, and how I grew to love pylons,” says Clio Barnard. Her fondness for transmission towers was stoked whilst writing her latest film, The Selfish Giant, as she discovered the ’Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s. Left-wing and modernist, the Pylon Poets believed that industry and technology could bring a form of emancipation to the common man. “Pylons are incredibly beautiful objects, but it’s more than that,” she explains. “For one brief period, before the railways and other resources were privatised, they belonged to everybody instead of to just a few.”
That time is, of course, long gone, and The Selfish Giant portrays that loss as devastating. Set in contemporary Bradford, the film focuses on Arbor, a troubled, desperately poor thirteen-year-old who scavenges copper to sell to a guileful scrap dealer. Whilst the pylons dotting the landscape serve as a reminder of Bradford’s post-industrial decline, it is Arbor’s heartbreakingly limited circumstances that epitomise The Selfish Giant’s indictment of Thatcherite policies. It was during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, long before Arbor was even born, that state-controlled companies like British Gas, British Airways and British Telecom were privatised, the commitment to providing full employment abandoned, and council houses sold off in their millions.
“Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic and naïve of me, and maybe people stole cable when the railways and electricity were nationalised, but I can’t help but see the effects,” Clio says. “There’s something about being so on the margin where even the idea of having a commute to work is completely meaningless, and so everything’s up for grabs.”
A social-realist drama in the tradition of child-centered classics like Kes and The 400 Blows, The Selfish Giant is one of the year’s most moving films. It is also one of the year’s most political films, but furthers its arguments in a beautifully understated fashion: even though it implies that everything that happens to Arbor is ultimately the result of government directives from decades before, Clio avoids proselytising, leaving the audience to connect the dots for themselves. “It was a conscious decision that the messages in the film would be unspoken. Sometimes I’d worry that it wouldn’t come across, that it needed to be more explicit, but from the responses I’ve had, it seems to have worked. It’s not absolutely down the line, there’s room for interpretation.”
Drawn to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Selfish Giant, Clio wanted to make a fable about greed: “A fable appears to be a very simple story, but when you scratch away it becomes complex. It’s a really difficult thing to do.”
As an artist and a documentary filmmaker, Clio’s desire to create a fairly straightforward story was a departure. The Selfish Giant’s roots can be found in her debut feature, The Arbor, an audacious documentary about the tragic Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. Filmed on the street where the dramatist lived (Brafferton Arbor, with which The Selfish Giant’s protagonist shares his name), the documentary featured actors lip-syncing to recordings of Dunbar’s relatives and neighbours. “The Arbor was quite complicated structurally, and had this formal experimentation, whereas The Selfish Giant is relatively simple,” Clio says, “But if it’s simple, I hope it’s deceptively so.”
Whilst making The Arbor, Clio got to know the children who would hang around the estate as they filmed. “In a way, Wilde’s original story is about the dangers of excluding children. It seemed that a lot of the children I met while making The Arbor were excluded—literally, from school—but also by being pushed to the margins because of an increasing gap between wealth and poverty.” One of the boys she met, Matty, became the inspiration for Arbor. After briefly contemplating making a documentary about him, Clio decided to fictionalise his story instead.
“One of the peculiar things I found was that what was happening to him in real life was more extreme that what we did in the fictional version. A gunman came to his house and Matty managed to hold the door against him, but if you put that within a film it would be kind of clichéd. Sometimes when you’re telling a story you have to cut out the stuff that’s really happening because it’s too familiar on screen.”
Clio instead concentrated on the thriving horse and cart subculture that she had first discovered ten years earlier. “In Bradford it’s almost a craze for teenage boys to go out on a horse and cart collecting scrap,” she explains. “Part of what fascinated me is that there’s a timelessness about it. There’s something that connects back to Victorian England and Dickens.” It was in the re-appropriation of materials that Clio found a surprising postscript to British industry’s deterioration. “It reflects a shift in the global economy. Detroit has a massive scrap metal trade, like Bradford. All of these big post-industrial cities are gathering all of this copper and then it gets sent to China.” By using horses and carts to recycle the detritus of industry, the children are accidentally green in their methods, a practice born out of necessity.
Marginalised but resourceful, Arbor—like his real-life counterpart—is drawn into a difficult working life that a thirteen-year-old shouldn’t have to abide. Clio’s subtle, powerful argument is that the exploitation of the disadvantaged is the logical endpoint of a society that values revenue above people. Ultimately, the film’s selfish giant is not the scrap dealer who profits from the hardships of children, but the libertarian principles that allow him to prosper.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Carl Bigmore.