Alongside John Akomfrah’s Nine Muses, and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (the third in his trilogy), two new British films, The Arbor and Self Made, were the subject of a London Film Festival panel discussion ‘British Cinema: Breaking With Convention’, focusing on works that challenge the conventional notion of narrative and documentary.

Pushing at the boundaries of factual representation, The Arbor and Self Made are fascinating for their unusual treatment of real lives and constructed fictions. Directed by women with backgrounds in art or artist’s film, each refuses easy categorisation.

The Arbor (released at cinemas in the UK today) delves into the life of Andrea Dunbar, author of three plays of the 80s, including The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, who died in 1990 aged 29. Living all her life on the beleaguered Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, as a writer she used her own circumstances as inspiration for her work. And director Clio Barnard does the same, depicting the harsh realities of her life and her mixed-race daughter Lorraine’s, whilst simultaneously questioning the ‘truths’ that exist at the boundaries of fact and fiction.

At the film’s start, written text declares: ‘This is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people whose story it tells’. A nod to verbatim theatre, in which actors speak the words of real life interviewees, the effect on film is eerie and utterly compelling.

Adding layer upon later, Barnard interweaves scenes from Dunbar’s productions, which are re-enacted by actors on land in the middle of the estate, with extracts from a television documentary made when Andrea’s first play was shown in London, featuring interviews with the writer herself. A slice of social realism, examining the fallout of Thatcher’s policies on the working class, and the consequences of alcohol and drug dependency, it cleverly plays with our pre-conceived ideas of social realism through its dazzling form. One of the stand out films at this year’s London Film Festival, The Arbor is extraordinarily rich and quite unlike any other film, a deserving winner of the Best New Documentary Filmmaker award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2010, with many more awards no doubt to follow.

Equally intriguing, Self Made is artist Gillian Wearing’s first feature. Like The Arbor, it mines the theatrical art form. Together with Method actor teacher Sam Rumbelow, Wearing entered an ad into a newspaper with the message: ‘Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian.’ Seven people signed up for the project and entered a Method workshop during which Rumbelow encouraged them to explore themselves and act out their experiences. Wearing shoots the results as five of them work towards ‘end scenes’: short filmed dramas, which emerge from their personal histories. One woman, for example, who has a difficult relationship with her father, plays Cordelia in an extract from ‘King Lear’. Another has trouble developing intimate relationships and plays a woman in the 1940s who responds indifferently when a man asks her out.

The result is unexpectedly moving and, at times, gripping. At its heart are issues of identity and the versions of self we present to the world, something every viewer can relate to. But while its form undoubtedly makes one aware of its construction, it still presses all the voyeuristic buttons. So it’s hard to know if that’s Wearing’s intention, or if it simply can’t help becoming reality TV for an arthouse audience.