Clio Barnard’s fourth feature, Ali & Ava starring Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook, for BBC Films premiered in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. The film won two BIFA Awards and was nominated for two BAFTAs. 

Clio also directed The Essex Serpent, a six-part TV series, starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. Produced by See-Saw Films for Apple TV+. 

Her other films include Dark River starring Ruth Wilson and Mark Stanley. The film premiered in the PLATFORM section of the Toronto Film Festival and was awarded a special mention by the Jury: “This film deeply rooted in the Yorkshire countryside convinced us, as its characters and actors, its photography, its story and its sense of place were all so utterly believable and controlled, that we were totally taken by it.”

The Selfish Giant, which premiered as part of Cannes Director’s Fortnight 2013 and, among other prizes, won the Europa Cinema Label’s Best European Film. It won Best Film at the 24th Stockholm International Film Festival. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film five out of five stars. The film was nominated for the 2014 BAFTA for Best British Film.

The Arbor, her first feature-length documentary film about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, received huge critical success on its release in 2010, and numerous awards including The Douglas Hickox Award at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs), Best Screenplay at the Evening Standard British Film Awards, Best British Newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival, Best New Documentary Filmmaker at Tribeca and The Grierson Award for Best Cinema Documentary and was nominated for a BAFTA

When did you know you wanted to be a director?

There were two films that made a huge impression on me in my teenage years. Performance by Nick Roeg and Rashomon by Kurosawa. I didn’t love school but I loved art. I was desperate to leave school and go to art college, which I did as soon as I could, first in Leeds then Newcastle. I tried out everything – print making, welding, and I was also messing around with a 16mm Bolex to make single frame records of large charcoal drawings which I was making, as they changed. I developed the films and printed them myself in a tiny dark room with an optical printer. I was a celluloid geek – I fell in love with it. At that time, I was briefly in a band making music. I remember going to see a Tarkovsky film at the Tyneside Cinema and thinking this medium is amazing – it combines image, sound, story, and music. It has everything. This is what I want to do. So, I started making live action films on Super 8 and the 16mm Bolex. At some point while I was making films, I thought that perhaps this might be some form of directing but didn’t think of myself as a director until I made The Selfish Giant.

Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what where your first steps in achieving this goal?

Once I left art college I applied for every Arts Council, Channel 4, BFI scheme going so that I could carry on making films. I supported myself financially by being London’s worst receptionist at a post house, eventually getting a job assisting with onscreen graphics and making title sequences. I continued to make my own short films alongside the other work. I directed a couple of short items for a tv show. I was a runner on a few of music videos and directed a couple of music videos.

What obstacles or set backs did you face in becoming a director?

Back in 2000 I developed a feature film with Film4 which didn’t come to anything in the end. That was hard and I almost gave up. Now I know that’s normal, but I found it very discouraging at the time. Several short films that I wanted to make before that didn’t get financed either. I suppose I’ve learned that dealing with disappointment is part of it.  Developing a determination to keep going, to keep experimenting – accepting that those unrealised projects aren’t wasted even if they don’t get made. The most important thing is having something that needs saying, and sometimes it takes a while to articulate that and figure out the best way to tell it.

How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?

By keeping on exploring ideas and taking risks. Trying out new things. Getting it wrong and trying again. When I realised that I wanted to work with actors and story I went to the National Film and Television School for a year to focus on those elements of filmmaking craft. This was because I was developing the feature film with Film4 and felt I needed those skills.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was The Arbor. The film was commissioned by Art Angel, an organisation who make work with artists. They had made projects I absolutely loved, like Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave. The initial proposal for The Arbor was for two live performances but in the development process it became clear that it needed to be a feature length film. An experimental documentary is quite niche, so I didn’t expect the response that the film received. The film raises questions about storytelling at the same time as telling a story I think people needed to hear at that time. It was 2010 and the Tories had just got in. The film Is about working-class playwright Andrea Dunbar who was writing in the 80’s. Looking back at Andrea Dunbar’s work allowed a time slice through three decades and three generations of one family in one specific marginalised community who had been impacted by the ideology of greed that began with Thatcher.

TV Credits: The Essex Serpent (2021), Sherwood (2024).

Film Credits: The Arbor (2010), The Selfish Giant (2013), Dark River (2017), Ali & Ava (2021).

Photograph: Nick Wall