Ever since her astonishing breakthrough documentary “The Arbor,” director Clio Barnard has been making a name for herself in her ability to tell stories about people on the fringes. This was especially true in her critically acclaimed 2013 feature “The Selfish Giant.” In her latest film, “Ali & Ava,” which recently played at the Toronto Film Festival, Barnard once again explores the relationships between people who otherwise aren’t seen on screen and how by participating in one another’s lives they’re able to enact change. “Ali & Ava” focuses on two lonely souls who connect over a lunar month, becoming increasingly dependent on one another, even as they both have obligations and struggles outside of this burgeoning relationship.
Our critic who saw the film at its premiere in Cannes wrote, “The film is a moving yet realistic exploration of a relationship across a cultural and class divide in northern England, and the film smartly skirts playing into the stereotypes of the region.”
We spoke to Barnard about building the characters, the significance of music in the film, and the magic of collaboration.
How has it been premiering your film at Cannes and now TIFF while we’re still dealing with COVID and while everything still seems to be changing?
Clio Barnard: Yeah COVID is making everything strange but I guess it’s become a new normal. TIFF is a really important festival to the film because it’s where I met Adeel Akhtar who plays Ali for the first time because we were both in TIFF in 2016 with different films. We met there and knew we wanted to collaborate and really “Ali & Ava” grew out of that initial meeting and then kind of building the character of Ali together. Both Ali and Ava are inspired by real people but yeah the process started with that meeting in Toronto.
I read that the story was inspired by experiences you had shooting your other films. Was there one in particular that led to the main storyline of the film or did it come from building the characters first?
It really came from both of the characters first and those people back when I was making my other films. And it’s about celebrating the lives of people that you don’t normally see and their internal lives on the big screen and I wanted to do that. They meet through the shared affection and care for a girl Sofia (played by Ariana Bodorova) who immigrated to the U.K. and both Ava and Ali are second-generation immigrants – her of Irish descent and him of Pakistani descent – and though that side of the story isn’t particularly dominant within the narrative it’s certainly there as part of it. It’s sort of much more about what’s going on internally for both of them I would say.
Is that your preferred way of storytelling where it’s based organically on people you meet in real life?
It comes from collaborating with people, both the people who the characters are inspired by and the actors in workshopping. I really enjoy that process. There’s a real kind of cross-over between fiction and reality that I really love and that I love in cinema. That excites me, that juxtaposition I suppose of fiction and reality and how things collide and the possibilities that come out of that and the unexpected possibilities that come out of that, in particular, I really enjoy.
There’s a trend in your films about wayward souls or outcasts or those dealing with loneliness – is that the type of character and story that just naturally intrigues you and that you’re drawn to telling? What do you think is so enriching about those characters?
I think I just really want to see people on screen that you don’t see enough of. I suppose when I made “The Arbor” – and you know this is the third film I’ve made in Bradford – and I think “The Arbor” was really an important film for me in terms of getting to know a particular group of people in a particular place and wanting to tell stories about and with the people I met and about their lives. Lives that are often hidden and I think shining a light on hidden lives is important to me.
What was the casting process like outside of Akhtar who you had already met before filming ?
It was a mix of professional and very experienced actors as well as casting non-actors and younger actors. Like the little girl who played Sofia who was originally written as a boy but because she came in and kind of knocked us all out we cast her and also Macy who plays Paris who is actually the niece of Shaun Thomas who plays Callum in the film.
That’s interesting that the character Sofia wasn’t originally written as a girl. Do you feel there’s a need to embrace that sort of flexibility when it comes to casting?
Definitely. And I find that exciting, the idea that someone might come in and completely change how you perceive that character. I find that thrilling. You need that kind of surprise where something changes and you pivot.
There’s the obvious bond they form over the care they feel for Sofia but there’s also a shared affection for music. Do you find that it’s important to show how people form relationships based on art? That’s such a human element.
I think music can play a big part in relationships. It’s a kind of fun thing or sometimes a very abstract way of communicating with somebody about what you love and won’t you don’t like. It was a real pleasure working with music and I was really thrilled we were able to license the Bob Dylan song and then Sylvan Esso was a revelation to me because I hadn’t known of them before so it was really fun for me working with the licensed music because I haven’t done it since “The Arbor.” That was enjoyable.
I love the moment where they’re listening to their own music but still enjoying it in one another’s company. What inspired that scene and what was the experience shooting it?
It was really fun to shoot it. I think that came out of a workshop that we built into the sequence. Then they all kind of take it away from what happened in the workshop and into the script. You have another go at it in a way on set because Claire Rushbrook who plays Ava kind of came into it later on in terms of we didn’t workshop with her so she and Adeel did a type of improvisation together which was really brilliant and then we cast her as Ava.
Going into this film were the unexpected challenges you faced that differed from other films you worked on? Or anything that you discovered about yourself as a filmmaker that you hadn’t before?
I learned that I really like working with music and I really enjoyed working with humor. I think Adeel has funny bones, he has a comic talent for comedy. I wouldn’t call it a comedy necessarily but there are those elements in it that I enjoyed.
What do you hope audiences take away?
I hope it starts a discussion but I hope with the ending there’s hope for possibility. I want an audience to walk out feeling things are possible. I want people to walk out with a feeling that these two people have been a catalyst for change in one another’s lives and that’s what is important and that’s what matters and with that change comes possibility. They’re both a bit stuck and they both change one another and that’s enough.