Three Great Things: Clio Barnard

The director of Ali & Ava (which is now in theaters) and The Essex Serpent on Maggie Nelson, food and the younger generation.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current theatrical release of Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, a life-affirming romantic drama starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, British writer-director Barnard (who also directed the current Apple TV+ hit show The Essex Serpent) shared some of the things she cares most about in life. — N.D.

Maggie Nelson
I absolutely love Maggie Nelson’s writing. I haven’t read everything she’s written, but that feels like a good thing because it means I’ve got more to discover. The first book of hers I read was Bluets, which is a piece of writing about heartbreak. She’s quite hard to classify as a writer because her work is partly autobiography, partly poetry and partly art criticism. That’s perhaps one of the aspects of what I love about it; it’s indefinable. Bluets just knocked me out. I thought it was beautiful and rich. When you’re in a place of heartbreak, it’s helpful to read something so intelligent, thoughtful, funny and emotionally spot on in terms of tapping into the complexity of what that feeling is like. The second book of hers that I read was The Argonauts, which is about falling in love, and is an equally brilliant book.

For anyone who hasn’t read her work yet, you’ve got a treat in store. There’s both real depth of thinking and humor too, and I find it a real salve, because the world is a complicated place. She’s very accepting of that complexity, which helps me make sense of things in a way that someone who didn’t dig quite so deep couldn’t. There’s also a philosophy that emerges out of Maggie Nelson’s work which I find galvanizing, in terms of an artistic practice. I’ve become a bit of a Maggie Nelson fangirl, but I didn’t realize until quite recently she loves the artist Sarah Lucas’s work, as I do also. There’s a video on YouTube where Maggie Nelson interviews Sarah Lucas, which is really wonderful.

Maggie Nelson’s writing hasn’t informed any of the work I’ve done, because I didn’t discover her until I was making The Essex Serpent. Sarah Perry was inspired by Bluets, so she refers to it in her notes on The Essex Serpent, and that was how I found out about her and started reading her stuff.

I share a lot of music and books with Adeel Akhtar, who plays Ali in my new film Ali and Ava, and he jokingly said about me, “The thing about Clio Barnard is she doesn’t know anything.” It’s because sometimes when he asked me a question on set, I’d say, “Oh, I don’t know.” There’s a very brilliant quote at the end of The Argonauts about the importance of not knowing and having an openness in not knowing. I know Adeel was teasing me with that line, but I think he meant it in a similar sort of way.

The Younger Generation
It’s quite a fun thing to be able to say, at the age of 57, that I love the younger generations. My reason for that is because I think in recent years we’ve seen a phenomenal paradigm shift in so many areas, with Black Lives Matter, as well as people’s thinking about gender, sexuality, inequality, the climate, etc. And I think the driving force behind so much of the radical thought, action and changes that have been going on is the younger generation. The younger generation makes me feel incredibly hopeful and I am learning a lot from them and being liberated by them in terms of my thinking. That, to me, is very exciting, because it feels like there was a fallow period where younger people weren’t energized and engaged in this way. There’s so much to feel negative about in the world right now, but there’s been such an upsurge of positive action and a clarity of social and moral purpose, which feels new and urgent and fantastic.

Zawe Ashton and Hayley Squires in Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland.

Adeel, to me, is the younger generation, and he talks a lot about joy as an act of resistance. Lucy Kirkwood is another artist who I think is really talented and I watched a brilliant play that she wrote, Maryland. It was made into a piece for television with Hayley Squires, who I’m working with at the moment. Lucy and I have collaborated on projects that unfortunately didn’t come to fruition, but not for want of trying. Kae Tempest is another artist I’m working with, and I am incredibly excited and moved by my creative engagement with people of that younger generation.

In some ways, I feel like I only just got old, so it’s only just occurred to me that I should be thinking about anyone as part of a different generation. But I’ve always loved to collaborate with people. That is part of my practice as an artist. It’s what excites me and what I love doing. All the films I’ve made have involved collaboration, pursuing a kind of curiosity, wanting to sit down with people and listen and then collaborate with them and find ways to bring stories to the screen that otherwise might not be told. I really love doing that. It feels exciting to me.

I love food. I think the reason it’s on my mind now is because after four years of very intense work, I finally had a holiday and went to Sicily with my grown-up kids, who also love food. We went to an incredible street market in Palermo, which had a huge variety of different kinds of food, from fresh fish, aubergines and plums to grilled sheep’s ricotta made on small farms, which was absolutely delicious. What’s revolutionary about Sicily is that good food there is for everyone. There’s not one sort of food for one group of people and another sort for another group of people; there’s no class divide when it comes to eating good food. Their food is also diverse, so it supports biodiversity. The way we’re eating in the U.K. and beyond at the moment is unsustainable, and we have to address it.

Food insecurity is becoming a massive problem, and climate change is a massive problem already, so it’s a no-brainer to adopt a different way of producing and consuming food. I need to get more involved. I bang on about this stuff to my kids, which I think drives them mad, but it’s not enough. I need to act, instead of just talking about it – either make something creatively or get involved in a local group. I worked with Lucy Kirkwood on a drama called Seasalter that dealt with these issues; it never got a green light in the end, but perhaps we can revive it in another form.

During lockdown lots of people, including me, started growing vegetables because we had time. What was so remarkable about it was how quickly we were able to change, and there was something about that change in our behavior which gave me hope about how we might adapt in our way of addressing climate change, food and sustainability.

Featured image shows Clio Barnard on the set of Ava & Ali, courtesy Avali Film Ltd.

Clio Barnard’s latest feature, Ali & Ava, starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, is out now in theaters through Greenwich Entertainment. Her first feature-length documentary film, The Arbor, about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, received huge critical success on its release in 2010 and won many awards numerous awards. Her second feature, The Selfish Giant, premiered in 2013 as part of Cannes Director’s Fortnight, where it won the Europa Cinema Label Award for Best European Film, and her follow-up, Dark River, starring Ruth Wilson, Mark Stanley and Sean Bean, premiered at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. She recently directed the television adaptation of The Essex Serpent, starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.