'Ali & Ava': sparkling love of forties with luggage

For the third time, British director Clio Barnard (The Arboro The Selfish Giant) for a film to Bradford, a city that was this year in the top ten worst places to live in the UK. The images of impoverished working-class neighborhoods and social tensions do not produce a grim drama this time. In Ali & Ava she uses the environment as a backdrop for one of the most endearing movie crushes of the year, thanks also to the music with which the characters give color to their lives.

Poverty is not explicitly mentioned, but is clearly present in the neighborhoods where Barnard’s romance takes place; a city that has been in serious trouble since the collapse of the textile industry in the 1980s. One such neighborhood on the periphery of the city is Buttershaw. Main character Ali (Adeel Akhtar) rents houses there. His marriage is on the rocks, but this childishly enthusiastic ex-DJ is not yet willing to admit that to himself or to his Pakistani family. After he gives a lift to teaching assistant Ava (Claire Rushbrook), something begins to bloom. Like Ali, she is in her forties, but she is also a grandmother of five grandchildren and a widow. He likes electro, she likes country and folk. The fact that he is a British-Pakistani Muslim and she is Irish Catholic is less important according to Clio Barnard. Barnard: “That’s more of a side effect. They are both not very religious. In people’s real lives, religion is also often incidental. Religion is often misused to divide.”

Throwing rocks

Yet serious themes such as domestic violence and racism do creep into the budding infatuation. The two forties take a lot of baggage from their past. The late ex-husband of Ava was a member of a far-right organization in the 1980s, her son Callum has adopted some of his ideas. That results in an almost tragicomic scene; When Callum first sees his mother’s future lover, he goes to his bedroom to fetch a samurai sword to chase him away. Ali himself has to chuckle afterwards at this twenty-something who thinks he is ‘Zorro’. Ali’s Pakistani-British family calls Ava a chav: a snack. Ali has to swallow when he hears that Ava lives in Holme Wood. The youth there are known for pelting people with stones and Ali’s car gets the full blast. Barnard does not want to call that racism: “They just throw stones at a bus.”

Making her film required constant balancing, the director explains: “I didn’t want to be pedantic, but that as a viewer you can simply experience the film as a love story with great music. But for those who want to dig a little deeper, there also had to be political, more serious layers.”

That is sometimes subtle. For example, Barnard tries to suggest parallels between the way Ava deals with her violent past – her ex mistreated her – and the way in which Britain deals with the colonial violence of the British in India and Ireland. In both cases it is silenced. “I’m trying to evoke such a connection with an Irish rebel song that Ava is singing. Or by mentioning that her Irish father disinherited her when she dated a British nationalist because he hated the British.”

The fact that Ali helps Ava’s family come to terms with the violence in their past in her film represents something bigger, according to Barnard: “If you don’t recognize what happened and face it, I don’t think you can move forward.”

The story and characters of Ali and Ava feel very lifelike, partly due to the natural acting of Akhtar and Rushbrook. It also helps that their characters are based on real people Barnard met during the shooting of her two previous films. The director ended up in Buttershaw for the first time for her acclaimed, experimental debut film The Arboro (2010) about the young playwright Andrea Dunbar. During those recordings she got to know the two boys who inspired her for the successor The Selfish Giant from 2013. One of them lived in Holme Wood and now plays Callum. The screenplay for her new film was created through extensive interviews and workshops with the people who modeled for Ali and Ava. Barnard: “I mixed fact and fiction from their lives; for example, they had no relationship in real life, but the Slovak tenants of Ali in the film, for example, are in real life the tenants of the man on whom his character is based.”

Bob Dylan

Besides the disarming characters, the strength of the film is mainly in the music. And how unaffected it is integrated into the everyday activities of the neighborhood residents. For example, Ava’s granddaughter dances to Bollywood music in the morning, Ali clears his mind to the pumping beats of Sylvan Esso and calms the stone-throwing youth of Holme Wood with local DJ MC Innes. Although the homeowner initially dislikes Ava’s love for protest songs, they grow closer musically, with the Bob Dylan song ‘Mama, You Been on My Mind’ plays a crucial role. Barnard sent a personal letter to the American singer explaining what her film was about and what the song meant to her. “I got no answer, but I did get permission to use the number. So I have no idea if he read that letter himself, but I like to imagine he did.”

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