The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard, 2013) is the director’s second feature-length film, after 2010’s celebrated The Arbor. Barnard’s film is self-consciously in a lineage with Bicycle Thieves (Dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1948), Kes (Dir. Ken Loach, 1969) and The Apple (Dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998) intended, in the director’s words, to be “a film in the realist tradition of fables about children.”1 ‘Inspired by’ Oscar Wilde’s short story, Barnard has realised the original, allegorical tale with a stark social realism – a potentially contradictory combination, but successful and in keeping with the director’s previous work. Barnard, aware that one kind of cinema is no more inherently ‘truthful’ than another, draws on extensive research and the performances of non-professional actors, but imbues her film with poetic imagery and a consistent authorial tone.
Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, found in his short story collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales, is a fable with explicitly Christian themes. In it, the central character builds a wall around his garden, in order to keep the children who like to play there from getting in. His garden falls into winter until the children manage to sneak back in, whereupon the giant recants and decides to take down the wall. However, the children run away from him when he reappears – all except one, who he helps climb a tree. When the giant knocks down the wall, the rest of the children return, but the tree-climber is now notably absent. Years later, under another tree in his garden, which the giant has never seen before, he encounters the boy again, this time bearing the stigmata. This is the Christ Child, who tells him that just as the giant once let Him play in his garden, “to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.”
Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is also a fiction with an explicit moral, but rendered with a documentary-like verisimilitude. As the director has said, she wants the audience “to be aware of all the different levels of representation there are when a camera is used and how elusive the truth is… That’s why I wanted to keep the title, which references a fairytale, to make it explicit that this is also a fable about childhood.”2 Almost immediately, the director establishes this tone with a shot of two children, Arbor and Swifty, silhouetted riding horseback, midframe on a landscape recalling the cut-out animation style of The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (Dir. Lotte Reiniger, 1926). In this way, Wilde’s original fable becomes just slightly more than a framework for Barnard’s project.
The Selfish Giant also contains a number of seemingly superficial allusions to Barnard’s feature debut, The Arbor – the lead character’s name for one, and the nickname Kitten (which in The Arbor belongs to an even less respectable, real-life character). The Arbor, also set in Bradford (Barnard grew up in nearby Otley), was inspired by the life and work of playwright Andrea Dunbar, author of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (Dir. Alan Clarke, 1987). The Arbor drew attention to its artifice as a documentary film, taking inspiration from Dunbar’s use of direct address in her plays, reminding the audience they were watching a film through the device of having actors lip-sync to recordings of Dunbar, her family and associates.
“Through these formal techniques,” the director has explained, “I hoped the film would achieve a fine balance – so that, perhaps paradoxically, the distancing techniques might create closeness, allowing push pull, so an audience might be aware of the shaping of the story but simultaneously able to engage emotionally.”3 The Arbor, apart from being formally audacious, communicates deeper concerns than a straightforward biopic, as Barnard concluded: “This is an important time to reflect on the complexity of circumstances that lead to neglect and abuse and our collective responsibility to the most vulnerable in society.”4
The Selfish Giant represents an evolution of the same preoccupations, formally and intellectually, and seeks a similar balance between reality and fiction in order to provoke an emotional and intellectual response from the viewer. Barnard’s experiences researching and filming The Arbor led directly to The Selfish Giant, while she also drew on her short film, Road Race (2004), which focused on the Traveller tradition of horse-drawn road racing.
Observing the social exclusion of children on the Bradford estates (“marginal in marginalized communities”5), Barnard noted the resonances with Wilde’s story, which she already had ambitions to adapt. Learning of the practice of scrapping and the opportunistic scrapyard owners who profited from the enterprise, the director found an analogue for the titular giant. The children, meanwhile, have direct real life counterparts: Barnard met the boy who inspired Arbor (Connor Chapman) while conducting workshops in a local school and drew heavily upon elements of his life.
Barnard’s decision to tell her story from the children’s point of view means her film diverges notably from Wilde’s tale, the moral of which is clearly the giant’s to learn. In retaining the title, Barnard underlines, as she has said, the fairy tale aspect of the story, but also complicates identification of the titular monster. The Selfish Giant can be, most obviously, Kitten, whose selfish opportunism and exploitation precipitates tragedy. It can be Arbor himself, whose single-minded pursuit of self-improvement is equally, if forgivably, culpable (the irony implicit in the nickname ‘Kitten’ could arguably also apply to the scrappy but slight Arbor).
Or it can be the State, the disregard of which has left the community to rot, enshrouded, in Barnard’s conception, by mist and enveloped with overgrown weeds. In balancing ragged, heartbreaking authenticity with a timeless, fabulous atmosphere, it’s the tacit acceptance of an ideology of selfishness and greed that is revealed to be Barnard’s true target, as relevant now as ever while transcending the specificity of time and place.
Sean Welsh, October 2013
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Clio Barnard, interviewed by Sean O’Hagan in The Observer
3. Clio Barnard, Director’s Statement for The Arbor