'I wanted to make something that was celebratory'

Director Clio Barnard on Ali & Ava as she dials in to Cannes

by Richard Mowe

Adeel Akhtar who plays Ali and Claire Rushbrook as Ava
Adeel Akhtar who plays Ali and Claire Rushbrook as Ava Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Directors' Fortnight
When she peered down remotely from the giant screen in the Theâtre de la Croisette in Cannes after the premiere of her new film Ali & Ava director-writer Clio Barnard is visibly upset not to be there in person.

She says she is “devastated” partly because the Directors’ Fortnight was where one of her previous films The Selfish Giant was launched so successfully in 2013. And when the Fortnight was cancelled with the rest of the Cannes Film Festival last year she used the time in between then and now to “perfect” the current production further, all the time trying to maintain the element of surprise. Because of lockdowns she was unable to travel back to Bradford where the film is set, and instead had to direct locals from afar to produce additional material, mainly sound recordings.

The reason she was unable to make the trip to the south of France was a clash of schedules in the shooting of a new series for Apple TV+ The Essex Serpent, adapted from Sarah Perry’s best-selling and Booker award-wining novel and with cast including Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.

Ali & Ava, Barnard’s fourth feature, is a love story focussing on two lonely people who find a connection despite trauma from past relationships for which she took inspiration from real people she had met in multi-cultural Bradford.

Clio Barnard missed out on this year’s Cannes in person but had more time to add finishing touches to Ali & Ava - 'I wanted to prioritise the internal struggles of both characters'
Clio Barnard missed out on this year’s Cannes in person but had more time to add finishing touches to Ali & Ava - 'I wanted to prioritise the internal struggles of both characters' Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Directors' Fortnight
“I met a lot of inspirational people when I was making my first two films The Arbor and The Selfish Giant and they provided the spark for Ali & Ava. I found that what is special about them is that there is a lot of kindness and support from within those communities where they both live and I wanted to celebrate it and put it on the big screen,” she explained.

“I encountered Adeel Akhtar [who plays Ali] at the Toronto Film Festival and really wanted to work with him. He is a unique thinker and came on board when it was just the germ of an idea. Claire [Rushbrook as Ava] came into it later when we had a script. We workshopped the scenes and the chemistry between the two of them was fantastic. The non-professional actors were found by street castings conducted by the casting director Shaeen Baig.”

Barnard likes to keep the atmosphere fluid during the shoot. “We have a script but I love it when things change by chance such as the scene in the car with Ali when the fog descends, and the scrap metal cart that trundled along during the funeral scene,” she adds.

She admits that the film is more joyous compared to her previous work. “I wanted to make something that was celebratory and I guess to also show the beauty of Bradford. That was certainly part of the conversations I had with the director of photography [Ole Birkeland] around how we showed the city. I also wanted to prioritise the internal struggles of both characters. Ava’s difficulty in trust after what happened with her previous partner Paul and the domestic violence she suffered and with Ali it was about his marriage falling apart and how difficult it was for him to adjust.”

One important aspect was to show that romance can blossom with being in the first flush of youth. “You don’t really see romances of people of that age and especially women of that age. Unlikely as it sounds she cites David Lean’s Brief Encounter as a key reference in the way she combined underserved communities with a strand of classic melodrama. “It was about taking something like Brief Encounter and putting it in this social realist setting,” she suggested. She also wanted to illustrate the important part music plays in relationships and when people fall in love, taking particular pleasure in playing around with the soundtrack.

Above all she wanted to capture the spirit of the people who live in places like Bradford, revealing “the warmth and kindness of communities that are marginalised and deprived”.

Ali & Ava will be released later in the year through Altitude.

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