A 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in Film & Video, Los Angeles-based artist Mariah Garnett has been using performance as a medium, and herself as a tool. In her works she has been a filmmaker, actor, and subject, in reenactment, candid improvisation and scripted rehearsal. Placing herself in front of the camera, as well as operating it and being in the editing room, Garnett is a kinetic lens for the viewer, an active researcher with archival footage and web queries, sharing a tidy visualization of her discoveries and evaluations of history compared to its contemporary relevance in her life. Garnett’s latest film Trouble follows her reconnection with her father David (whom she came to know in adulthood) over four years, using candid phone and camcorder recordings of their time together, footage of herself alone, reenactments of BBC news footage, and screen recordings of Internet searches to make the experimental documentary. Having fled Belfast in Northern Ireland for being ostracized and endangered as a Protestant in relationship with a Catholic, Garnett’s father’s history is entwined with the political repercussions of social oppression and rebellion for the sake of keeping his identity. After the film premiered in Projections at NYFF in October, Garnett and I discussed the making of the film, gender roles, and the performance of self on camera.
Shelby Shaw (Rail): Can you talk about how you came to the decision to explore this subject—the triad of your father, his history, and your relationship to both—by means of an art project, and specifically as a film?
Mariah Garnett: I went to visit him in 2013 and he was reconnecting with his brother for the first time since 1971, and that's when I came up with the idea. I wanted to explore reconnecting with and getting to know his family of origin parallel to the same thing happening with us. I was also interested in how the news footage was the reason for his leaving, and vaguely understood enough about the Troubles to be interested in threading that in as well, but Belfast played an unexpected role in the final film.
Rail: You and your father both seem so comfortable with each other while the cameras are rolling. Was he willing to participate in the film or did you attempt to hide the camera when filming? How much did David know about the project when you started?
Garnett: I think I gave him a very short pitch about the project (it wasn't very fleshed out at the time) and he said “you do what you like.” From there, I just would set the camera up whenever we were doing stuff around the house, and I brought my camcorder with me when we went out. I didn't really draw attention to the camera, I just set it up and left it there, or used my phone. So he was aware in a broader sense that I was making a film, and the camera was visible, but it wasn't super clear when I was filming for the film or if the camera was on. It wasn't super clear to me either, to be fair!
Rail: Did you show him the film once you felt like it was finished? Were you prepared to change or completely shelve the project if he didn’t approve?
Garnett: I did show it to him once I had a final cut. I had spoken to him throughout the process about my intentions for the film, so I wasn’t really prepared to shelve it. Earlier in the process I was prepared to do that, but we talked about it. I would’ve changed things if he felt strongly about them.
Rail: The news clip you discovered is of your father at a young age with his then-girlfriend, Maura. They were in a mixed relationship as a Protestant and a Roman Catholic. Aside from being a wonderful way to synthesize the history leading up to today (or, more specifically, your own existence), what was your initial goal in cutting your hair and dressing as your young father in order to reenact scenes from the news clip?
Garnett: I often use a strategy of impersonation in my films, for which I cut my hair and style myself to look like the person I'm making a film about. Honestly, the reenactment was my dad's idea—he suggested I do that to avoid licensing fees. A quick note about the BBC footage: part of my impetus for making this film was to correct the narrative in some way, as my dad felt manipulated by the way the BBC documentary was cut together. Using "voice of god" narration, the BBC presented David and Maura's relationship in the context of marriage when in reality they were just a teenage boyfriend and girlfriend with no plans to marry. They highlighted the difficulties of being in a "mixed marriage" when in fact it was more complicated than that. In the context of war, everything is difficult, and at a certain point in my film, my dad says it wasn't difficult for them to date because he lived in the Catholic areas.
Rail: How did your dad react to your haircut?
Garnett: I think he laughed at it. He laughed at his own haircut when he saw it for the first time.
Rail: How did you cast your Maura for the reenactment, and what was rehearsing like?
Garnett: I hired a producer in Belfast to help me cast a range of people to play the part of Maura. I knew I didn't want a cis-woman so the character's gender reversal would match mine to some extent. So for me, to play Maura would have felt more like doing drag than for me to play David, and I wanted whoever played Maura to have a more feminine gender expression so that whoever ended up playing her, though not a cis-woman, would fit naturally in the role as opposed to doing drag. So I was looking for people who were gender queer or trans. Robyn [Reihill] was far and away the best actress, and we only really rehearsed on the day of the shoot. I did a lot of rehearsing to the video, practicing the rhythm of the speech of the lines, and I imagine she did the same.
Rail: Can you talk about how you approached gender and gender roles in the film?
Garnett: I'd say the film generally avoids binaries, so I think there's something about gender in that, and my approach to thinking about gender in general. I think the film is queer in its form and perspective more than in its content. I tried to blur lines between genres, using whatever means for representation were at my disposal. Northern Ireland is a place where people live under a very destructive binary system, and I was intrigued by the ways in which people there cope with that. I think part of the reason I felt so immediately bonded to people in Belfast was because of this. As a non-binary queer person I recognized some of the coping mechanisms people use to carry on living under the threat of violence tied to a society that enforces an unrealistic identification with one of two sides. I wasn't interested in exalting one side or the other, but looking at the in-between spaces.
Rail: Can you talk more about the coping mechanisms? Was it something that became easier for you to recognize over the course of working on the film and traveling back and forth between the States, Belfast, and Vienna?
Garnett: Reclaiming the narrative through humor is a big coping mechanism, as well as DIY, community-based support systems. There seemed to be a (well-earned) distrust of institutions, which also felt parallel to a queer experience in America.
Rail: Everything feels like it’s happening so organically while you’re in Vienna with your father, which is such a special feeling as a viewer. What kind of planning did you do for this project? For how long were you initially filming and then editing?
Garnett: I didn't do a lot of planning ahead of this trip. I procured the archival footage and then strategically avoided doing too much research on the Troubles. I think I did a little bit, but nothing really sank in. I filmed off and on sporadically from 2014–2018 and edited a little bit along the way. I'd say I finished editing about half of it in 2017 and then finished the other half in 2018.
Rail: Do you consider Trouble to be—strictly speaking—a documentary?
Garnett: No, definitely not. As with all my work, I see it as an unraveling of the documentary form, highlighting its constructed nature rather than presenting it as any definitive exploration of truth. Northern Ireland in particular has a legacy of outsiders coming in and representing the conflict in simplistic terms, and I was seeking to look at lived experience rather than making any kind of definitive statement about the nature of the beast. I was very aware of the problematic history of media representation of the conflict and place, and so I don't think of Trouble as being a documentary in that sense, but rather as a means of creating relationships—both between myself and my father, and myself and Northern Ireland.
Rail: I think that comes across really successfully in the film, in that it isn’t some documentary attempt at being the truth. It’s more of a candid experience. And as much as it’s about your father and Northern Ireland, it’s also just as much about you without being strictly “autobiography.” Can you talk about how (or whether) you balance self-representation with self-performance when on-camera in your own work?
Garnett: For me, any form of self-representation on camera is a performance. I definitely go into another mode when I’m on camera and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a “true” representation of who I am but more of a caricature. I don’t really think of my films as being autobiographical (even this one) but more about me looking at another person. So my experience and perspective are in there, but it’s not really about my story so much.
Rail: Do you think you might one day attempt to make a purposefully autobiographical project, or will you leave it to someone else to do their own representation of looking at you?
Garnett: I don't think I would make a strictly autobiographical project, no. If I did, it would likely not be a film. I've thought of writing something but that's for another time!
Rail: Do you think that reenacting a true moment from your father's life has brought you closer to him, or to that specific memory? Especially now that you have mimicked it for yourself (despite being consciously staged) in a way that led you to an understanding of him that he couldn't have transcended through conversation or letters alone?
Garnett: Absolutely! I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. I think it brought me closer to both him and to Northern Ireland, this reenactment, because rather than asking the question in words and then getting an answer back in words (an abstraction of experience), I asked (and answered) the question through embodiment (a simulacrum of experience).
Rail: Where are you now in this study/understanding of your father and his history? Did you continue to research once you finished Trouble or did you wrap up this project for yourself when you wrapped up the film?
Garnett: I pretty much dropped the topic altogether once I finished the film. I feel like I have a fairly comprehensive understanding of his history and who he is now. I'm still interested in Northern Ireland, and have really found a deep connection to the place as well as some of the people there, but I am sort of itching to make something else entirely now.