Ali & Ava: ‘Joy as an act of resistance’ in Clio Barnard’s BAFTA-nominated film

Director Clio Barnard says her latest film – the modern love story Ali & Ava- uses the dual tools of joy and music to harness its powerful message.

Set in over a month in Bradford and starring actors Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrooke, it’s the third film Barnard has set in the West Yorkshire city.

The filmmaker told Sky News: “We talked about joy as an act of resistance, so [Akhtar’s] character [Ali] is incredibly joyful and the music plays a really important role in the film.”

The movie has been nominated for two BAFTAs at this year’s awards – best British film and best actor for Four Lions star Akhtar.

With a backdrop of music by the Buzzcocks, Sylvan Esso and David Avery, Ali & Ava is a love story that defies divides.

Ali loves dance music and Ava likes folk and country, their musical tastes representative of cultural and emotional barriers to their relationship forming.

“Ali is from [postcode] BD3, which is a predominantly South Asian neighbourhood and Ava’s from BD4, which is predominantly white working-class neighbourhood,” Barnard explains.

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“I guess within their own neighbourhoods and families, there are some obstacles to them getting together.”

The film also delves into emotional challenges the two lead characters must overcome to find love, with Ava (played by Rushbrook), struggling to move on from a past violent relationship.

Meanwhile Ali is separated from his wife, but still madly in love with her.

The use of humour to cope with the uncomfortable is something that Akhtar says he can relate to.

Speaking to Sky News from New Zealand where he is currently filming season two of Netflix’s Sweet Tooth, he says: “In a place that I sort of feel I can kind of try and joke my way out of it, which will probably be trying to deflect away from my raw emotion, I have a tendency to do.”

Akhtar’s personal traits manifesting in the character makes sense, as in a departure from the normal casting process, there was no formal script offered to him for the film.

Instead, after meeting Barnard at the Toronto Film Festival, Akhtar says: “[We] fell into a rehearsal process, which then fell into a workshop, and it was just this very sort of organic, slow-moving process.”

The result is a romance between an unlikely couple in working-class Britain, finding each other later in life, despite obstacles and differences – something Barnard said was an intention from the beginning when workshopping the story with Akhtar.

With cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland at the helm – whose work includes Oscar winning film Judy starring Renee Zellweger – the movie presents Bradford as a place of beauty.

It also highlights its rich sense of community, a storyline demonstrated in Ali and Ava meeting over their shared affection for six-year-old Sofia, the child of Ali’s Slovakian tenants, who he takes to school and who Ava works with as a teaching assistant.

Akhtar explains: “It sort of allows us, in a very easy way, to realise that there’s good in the world, and there are people who are already working within communities and working alongside each other shoulder to shoulder in a way that we wouldn’t really give any sort of attention to.”

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The movie – which melds gritty social realism with dancing on sofas and raving on car roofs – has garnered favourable comparisons to the work of director Ken Loach.

Music by artists including Bob Dylan, Spring Edge and The Specials punctuates the story.

Akhtar says it’s this sound of music that is the catalyst for love crossing cultural, racial and social divides in the film.

“We exchange our musical tastes, and I think that for me was the start of that journey.”

Ali & Ava is in cinemas across the UK and Ireland now.

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