Ali & Ava
Text: Pamela Jahn
Clio Barnard started off bold. Her first feature-length film, The Arbor (2010), was officially labelled as a documentary but went far beyond any known non-fiction format or style. A wholly unique documentary experience, the film shuttled the viewer through the life of troubled British working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar by interspersing archival footage and street performances of the writer's work amidst artfully re-enacted and eerily lip-synched testimonials from friends and family members.
Eleven years later, Barnard's fourth film, - her third work of fiction - is perhaps her least obviously inventive film to date and yet Ali & Ava offers a unique, intimate and nuanced depiction of life in 21st century Britain that feels natural and real. Set in Bradford and centered around a cross-cultural relationship between an Asian guitar-playing landlord and a British-Irish middle-aged classroom assistant, this emphatically shot and edited film is a spare but vibrant social-realist tale drawn with precise strokes. However, what ultimately makes this forbidden love scenario (think Romeo and Juliet) come to life is the way the director uses music and texture to create a sensual experience that detracts from the conventions of kitchen-sink and romantic drama that are equally at play here.
Portraying the odd couple at the heart of the story, Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook as Ali and Ava respectively have to do the heavy lifting in this film in order to make the tender love story that blossoms between them truly believable. At the same time, Barnard excels in depicting the people and places around them. Bradford is a tough old place; it's not rich and certainly not pretty but the director, who grew up not too far from the city, demonstrates a sense of community and social consciousness that feels authentic, while cinematographer Ole Birkeland produces thoughtfully composed shots and images according to the mood, feel and temperature of the moment.
There are plenty of references to the cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh that are not only obvious but intentional. Barnard is working in the tradition of the great British directors but her own voice as a visionary filmmaker is loud and clear. Seamlessly alternating between elation and violence in a flash, Ali & Ava might lack the almost surreal deep and gloomy psychological realism of her previous film, Dark River, but what makes Barnard's latest work special is her acute sensitivity for people and places as well as a sense of unflinching control over what is seen or unseen, and how the material is constructed. As tender and heartfelt as the story at the centre might be, the tonal shifts come hard and sudden, if only to linger in the mind all the longer afterwards.
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Ali & Ava | Film | Clio Barnard | UK 2021 | 95’ | Zurich Film Festival 2021
First published: October 18, 2021