A compelling giant

Director Clio Barnard picked Conner Chapman for The Selfish Giant on the first day of casting.

The Selfish Giant has been hailed as one of Britain's best films last year.

It explores the friendship between two teenage boys, Arbor and Swifty, in an impoverished part of northern England as they collect scrap material for money, and has drawn favourable comparison to feted filmmaker Ken Loach's social-realist dramas.

Its writer-director Clio Barnard, 49, tells Life! that the acclaim for The Selfish Giant has been "really wonderful". Speaking over the telephone from Kent, she adds: "You never know when you're making something whether it's going to connect or resonate."

It won the Europa Cinemas award at Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for Best British Film at the British Academy Film Awards.

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw gave it five out of five stars and called it a "richly allusive and moving work".

Cinephiles here can catch it at this year's European Union Film Festival, which runs from May 15 to 25.

The reception Barnard has received for the film was particularly heartening, given that it was her first foray into fictional film after making her debut feature with the documentary The Arbor (2010), about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar.

Says Barnard, whose background is in conceptual art: "The thing I found really tricky with documentary is the responsibility of representing real life. In fiction, you can still do that but it doesn't carry the same weight of responsibility."

The Selfish Giant was inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name. "It was a story I read to my own children when they were little and I had a hunch to do a contemporary retelling of the story," says Barnard, who is not married, referring to her two sons, aged 13 and nine.

But she makes clear that the story was just a starting point as the film "is quite dark in some ways". In fact, she was also inspired by a boy who did scrapping whom she met while making The Arbor in Bradford. This is a city which had a big textile industry which collapsed in the 1980s and has "pockets of real deprivation".

She was also fuelled by a sense of injustice. "I felt really angry and upset about the way the children there were undervalued. A lot of the teenage boys I met there didn't go to secondary school and there were so few opportunities for those kids. I felt angry that those people I got to know might, from the outside, be blamed for something they are actually struggling with."

While she readily acknowledges that the film is a political film, she is also careful not to push an overt agenda. "I think all films have some kind of political ideology. But I don't want it to be didactic in any way, it needs to be as open as possible."

Indeed, The Selfish Giant works on the most basic level as a compelling film with unaffected performances from its young, non-professional leads, Conner Chapman, 15, and Shaun Thomas, 16.

She says of the casting: "I really wanted to work with children who were from that neighbourhood and from that world. Because we had cast in that place before, we knew exactly where to look, and we actually found Conner on the first day of casting."

It took a little longer to cast the character of Swifty, in part because he has a strong affinity with horses. Thomas fit the bill perfectly as he has been riding horses and scrapping since he was 11.

Barnard adds with a laugh: "As well as actor, he was technical adviser."

Asked if she would ever cast her own children, she muses: "I don't know actually. They're in the background in The Selfish Giant but I absolutely had to have boys from Bradford for that."

"But never say never, absolutely."

Among the 27 movies on offer at the European Union Film Festival are Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013), about an ageing writer looking back on his life in Rome; hit Irish film What Richard Did (2012), a drama about a young man who commits an act of violence; and This Is Sanlitun (2013), a low-budget comedy from Iceland about a British expatriate in Beijing.

Book it

24TH EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL

Where: Shaw Theatres Lido
When: May 15 to 25
Admission: Tickets at $12 are available from www.shaw.sg
Info: www.euff.sg

This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.

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