On a bright, crisp day in late November 2019, Total Film is catching a train from Keighley station to travel through bucolic Yorkshire countryside, the fields painted with frost. As TF’s breath mists in the vintage train commissioned just for this journey on the Worth Valley Railway, actors Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook sit further down the carriage admiring the view and flirting, as writer/director Clio Barnard watches from behind the camera – smiling as it catches a moment of sunny loveliness inside and outside the train.
Those familiar with Barnard’s Bradford-set socio-realist output might be surprised to find the Otley-born filmmaker looking for lightness and love in her fourth film set in her homeland. Her debut The Arbor was an unflinching look at the racism, deprivation and alcoholism that plagued playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Selfish Giant charted the tragedy of two young boys driven to danger by poverty and lack of opportunity, Dark River explored PTSD and incest. Ali & Ava, the heartwarming story of an Asian landlord finding an unexpected connection with a White-Irish matriarch is as much a love letter to Brief Encounter and that compressed-time romance as it is to the former wool capital.
“I wanted to make a film that was a love story, and that showed what was beautiful about Bradford,” Barnard explains during a break in filming as we tuck into local curry. “I felt I hadn’t really seen that on the big screen before, and it felt important. I was inspired by Brief Encounter but it was set around the people in the train station café that the couple were in, rather than the couple themselves.”
Using the melodrama as a starting point and containing the arc of the relationship within one lunar month (“the moon is a kind of romantic thing but it’s also really important in Islam”), Barnard went back to the stories of two Bradfordians she had met while workshopping on The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. Moey Hassan and his real-life relationships with his Slovakian tenants began to form the character of Ali, a man hiding heartbreak beneath his cheery persona, while local mum Rio Ginelly became the muse for Ava, a mothering, community-spirited ray of light with a dark past. When Ali and Ava meet via their kindness towards others, they spark exploration in one another – sharing their different musical tastes, cultures, family secrets – and finding a fragile love threatened by their personal circumstances.
“Something that really struck me about both Moey and Rio was how embedded in their own neighbourhoods they are, and how kind they are, in terms of people looking out for each other,” notes Barnard. “It felt really important to reflect that, and to show that despite the difficulties that those communities are up against, that there’s a real generosity and big heartedness. I really wanted to celebrate that.”
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