Clio Barnard – The Selfish Giant (2013)
Article written by Ana Beltschewa
Following her verbatim style feature documentary The Arbor Barnard returns to the harsh realities of Bradford to tell the story of deprived teenage friends Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) who, after having been excluded from school, turn to scrapping to support their struggling mothers. With a horse and cart from scowling scrap-metal merchant Kitten (Sean Gilder) they put themselves into ever increasing danger while losing much of their hard-earned money to the destructive new father figure. In a tragic attempt to retrieve a piece of high voltage electric power transmission, the tale reaches its unavoidably gruesome climax.
Often compared to Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), Barnard’s drama transforms Oscar Wilde’s religious allegory of the same name into a 21st century realist fable about a godless realm where children are marginalised by a post-industrial landscape.
In Wilde’s religious allegory, an Eden-like garden withers in endless winter when the titular giant walls it off from playful children. Barnard’s version is more political, a portrait of a post-industrial landscape in which selfishness has become an ideology, with children once again marginalised to devastating effect.
Mark Kermode – The Guardian 27/10/13
Barnard’s tale is open to interpretation; whether the garden is Kitten’s scrap yard, making him the evil, ruling giant, or Britain itself, suffering from post-Thatcherite greed, is up to the audience.
It’s essentially a film about love, deep friendship and loyalty between the two boys, but it is played out in an adult world where something has gone fundamentally wrong, and children are often at the cutting edge of that.
Clio Barnard – The Observer 12/10/13
Barnard diverted from the initial idea to tell the story from the giant’s point of view and instead focused on the children therefore making the two boys the heart of the story. Arbor’s and Swifty’s characters couldn’t be more different: one edgy, aggressive and restless the other slower and gentler with a natural talent for handling horses. Swifty’s kind nature is almost foreboding of his early demise as if he never stood a chance to survive in the unforgiving world Arbor tries so hard to find a place in.
When I went to Brafferton Arbor [the street on which The Arbor is set] for the first time, there he was, wearing his rigger boots and really dirty clothes. It was pure attitude, a kind of ‘fuck you!’ to anyone who dare call him a pikey […] Matty had no interest in buying clothes or trainers, and he hated drugs. He just seemed fiercely independent, a survivor whose skills could have been put to use somehow, but he was utterly excluded.
Clio Barnard – The Observer 12/10/13
Arbor is loosely modelled after Matty, a young boy Barnard met when she was shooting her first feature. Not unlike Matty, Arbor wants to be independent and is seduced by the short-term gratification he gets from scrapping instead of focusing on a long-term education. He is tough and street smart and in his pursuit to get rich and gain Kitten’s trust, two often-contradictory goals, he is willing to take on ever increasing risks without considering the consequences. However he is also loyal, willing to step up and defend his friend from bullies, and compassionate and mature, comforting his mother when his older brother has gotten into trouble again. Ultimately we follow Arbor on his journey from being the protected, dependent on his friend’s calming presence, to becoming the protector, not only of Swifty’s mum but also of his own future.
Like Kes’s Billy Casper, Swifty’s soft-hearted nature is reflected in his connection to horses. Through this quality he manages to gain Kitten’s respect and for a short moment it looks like he might find a way out of the dangerous world of scrapping. However his hopeless empathy and loyalty to his friend become his downfall.
When Arbor and Swifty watch the group of men stealing railway cables at night in the first couple of minutes of the film, Arbor’s external goal becomes immediately apparent: he wants to make money, as much as possible as quickly as possible and this nightly encounter has given him an idea on how to do it. From then on it’s all about scrapping: when he gets expelled from school he isn’t worried about his future but sees this as the ultimate opportunity to go scrapping full time.
To achieve his goal he is dependent on Kitten’s trust and respect however the cold-hearted scrap metal merchant doesn’t have a lot of patients for the hyperactive troublemaker and instead turns his attention to Swifty who shows a natural affinity for his racehorse. In an act of sulking revenge Arbor steals copper from Kitten and tries to sell it to a different merchant. But his plan backfires and Kitten finds out, giving him the perfect opportunity to scare Arbor into stealing a piece of high voltage electric power transmission.
Not fully aware of the danger and without other options Arbor sets out to retrieve the cable. When Swifty is electrocuted and killed in an effort to help his friend, Arbor’s internal struggle comes crushing down on him. The tough exterior he had so carefully constructed falls apart and for the first time he is faced with serious consequences for his careless actions. Thoroughly shattered he desperately tries to mend the situation by seeking out Swifty’s mother. When she refuses to see him, he tirelessly waits in front of her house, not caring about anything else but to make things right.
Set up: Together with his best friend Swifty, Arbor lives in a deprived area of Bradford looking for a way to support his mother and escape his situation.
Inciting Incident – minute 2 – When the boys witness a group of men stealing railway cable, Arbor decides to steal some of it and bring it to local scrap merchant Kitten.
Strong Movement Forward – minute 16 – After a fight with another boy Arbor and Swifty are expelled from school allowing them to go scrapping full time.
End of Act I Turn – minute 22 – Arbor is working hard to gain Kitten’s trust to continue scrapping for him. Swifty meets Kitten’s racing horse Diesel.
ACT II -A
First Trial: – minute 30 ¬– Arbor convinces Kitten to give him a horse and cart allowing him to collect more scrap metal. He picks up Swifty from school and persuades him to join him.
Midpoint – minute 40 – Kitten’s interest in Swifty causes a rift in the boys’ friendship.
Assumption of power – minute 52– after a fight with Swifty Arbor sets out on his own and decides to steal copper wire from Kitten and sell it on to another scrap metal merchant.
End of Act II Turn – minute 57– Kitten finds out about the stolen copper and intimidates Arbor into stealing a high voltage underground piece of electric power transmission and gives him the equipment to do so.
Point of no return – minute 58 – Arbor sets out to retrieve the cable.
Climax – minute 60 – When Swifty sees Arbor struggling to lift the piece of electric cable he takes matters into his own hands ignoring Arbor’s warnings that he isn’t wearing the right protective clothing. Both boys get electrocuted. When Arbor comes to he realises his friend has died.
Aftermath – minute 67 – After returning to the scrap yard with Swifty’s body, Kitten turns himself in to the police and Arbor seeks out Swifty’s mother for forgiveness. When she denies seeing him he waits outside her house in the pouring rain.