As someone who was raised in Doncaster since the age of 10, there’s no type of British film that excites me more than ones set up north – especially as most of the movies we make on these fair isles are London-centric.
The north has never got enough attention and it’s certainly not a monolith; there is a regional diversity beyond our varying accents so it’s always a pleasure to see these different communities and cultures, from Liverpool to Leeds, represented in cinematic form. What is rarer than a northern excursion on-screen are the ones that feature people of colour and not simply to use racism as a plot device.
The Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren-led The Duke was recently guilty of this in an otherwise charming film. The script has an Asian man experience workplace discrimination simply to have Broadbent’s working-class hero prove he’s willing to risk his own job to play the white saviour too. There’s surely a better way to shake up a protagonist’s storyline without the need to call the film’s only featured ethnic minority character the P-word.
It’s why a movie like Ali & Ava is such a balm. Clio Barnard’s fourth feature continues the social realism themes of her directorial debut, The Arbor, which used a mix of documentary and fictional elements to tell the story of celebrated Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar and the fraught relationship she had with her mixed-race daughter by a local Pakistani man. Similarly set in Bradford, and based on the experiences of real-life people, Barnard, a West Yorkshire lass herself, explores an interracial romance between two lonely people plodding along in a somewhat purgatorial state.
Ali, played by Adeel Akhtar, is a sweet and affable music lover from a somewhat well-off Pakistani family who is hiding the fact that he and his wife have separated. Claire Rushbrook’s working-class Ava, meanwhile, is a teaching assistant of Irish heritage who spends her days looking after other people’s kids, including her own children’s growing brood.
Maybe not star-crossed lovers, but there’s certainly racial tension causing resistance to Ali and Ava’s budding romance. Barnard shows a deft hand when it comes to showcasing these sorts of prejudices; one minute Ava’s eldest son Callum is dancing with his mum and sister to a Bollywood-inspired aerobics, the next, he’s threatening Ali with a samurai sword, channelling the sort of angry bigotry his late abusive father was partial to.