“In representing someone else, all of my films are actually representations of myself.”
The cinema “teach[es] me to tirelessly touch with my gaze the distance from me at which the other begins.” So wrote the French film critic Serge Daney in 1992, reflecting on a life led looking and thinking about cinema in the months before his death. Mariah Garnett uses the camera to see her subjects from various perspectives to bridge this distance. Aware of the camera’s limitations, she employs various strategies belonging to documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking, occasionally reenacting her subjects in attempt to know them further.
The subjects Garnett has engaged with her camera include Catalina de Erauso, the seventeenth century Basque nun who lived as a man and a soldier in colonial Latin America, in the 2011 film Picaresques; the sex symbol Peter Berlin, in the 2012 film Encounters I May or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin; and veterans who place their bodies in extreme circumstances as Hollywood stuntmen, in the 2014 film Full Burn. The subject of Garnett’s most recent film, Other & Father, premiering in Belfast in February and Los Angeles in March, is her father.
Risa Puleo We’ve been missing each other across Europe and the States since Margaret Haines introduced us in the Spring after she found out I was researching Catalina de Erauso, the subject of your film Picaresques. Why were you interested in Catalina, and how did you find her?
Mariah Garnett There are so many layers there. The gender stuff, for sure. She’s such an unreliable narrator, because she’s basically pleading for her life, so she’s playing up all these exploits in a performance of masculinity. You never know how she actually feels. It’s like a list of guys she’s killed in card games. She’s boastful about what she’s done, saying things like, “And then I ran him through with my sword.” But I started to read it later as men challenging her masculinity in a way that was threatening to her identity, and her fighting back. She’s kind of a horrible figure.
RP She’s totally a scoundrel! She’s a colonist, a conquistador. She robs and kills all the people who try to help her. She’s a love ‘em and leave ‘em “lady’s man.” And all of this behavior also becomes evidence of her masculinity in the seventeenth century.
MG The thing I was really struck by is that it’s an early trans narrative, but fear of discovery is not what drives the book [Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World]. This seemed really rare as all the modern ones I can think of base all of their dramatic tension in this fear. She wasn’t worried about getting found out and killed, and then she gets found out and it’s fine. In fact, she’s rewarded for it. I thought she was a really compelling character, and I still want to make a Braveheart style, traditional narrative period piece about her, but it turns out that’s not really how I work.
RP How do you work?
MG I pick a central figure, then orbit around it and try as many strategies for accessing that person or subject I’m interested in.
RP In Picaresques, the central figure shifts from Catalina to Phoebe, cast in the role of young Catalina.
MG Yeah, it does. I met Phoebe, and she’s got this bravado and gender ambiguity that reminded me of Catalina. The film kind of took this sharp turn. I just followed that, but I was still kind of trying to access this historical figure. I was thinking about it as a way to make a movie about gender without any discussions about sexuality or sex. Because in the movie Phoebe is between nine and eleven years old; I wouldn’t presume to know what she’s going to turn into as she grows up. But at that age she was really playing with gender. I was looking to people in the past—Catalina—and the future—Phoebe—with similar gender stuff to me. That film came from Catalina’s text, then got mapped onto Phoebe, and all these things orbited around each other.
MG The film I’m working on now is about my dad. I just met him for the first time in 2007. He’s from Northern Ireland, Belfast. My parents met in a youth hostel in Athens in 1979, and they were together for like a year. He and I wrote letters but didn’t meet in person until I was twenty-seven. I found out the reason he left Belfast at nineteen was because of the Troubles. He left because he was raised working class Protestant and he started dating a Catholic girl. The BBC did a news special on them: “Are these two young people a ray of light in dark times?” It was really overblown, and it was right as the Troubles were heating up, like 1971, before Bloody Sunday, right before things became ultra-violent. They went on the news, then had to break up and leave the country because they were getting too much attention. And he’s never been back.
RP Does he go back as part of the film?
MG I was hoping he would, but I don’t think he will. Two years ago my dad made contact with his family for the first time in forty years. So I was hoping that we would all go back together, and I would document the reunion. That didn’t really pan out. But I ended up going to Belfast and spending four months there this year. I recreated the news footage with me playing him as a teenager and I got Robyn Reihill, a trans actress from Belfast, to play the girlfriend.
RP How is Belfast?
MG I really connected with it right off the bat. I love it, but it’s a really confusing place. It’s hard to understand what happened and what is happening, and whether the Troubles are over or not. I mean, officially they are. There is a definite division there, but it’s also like a performance. But then it does get really violent sometimes. It’s one of the most intangible places I’ve ever been. Somebody told me it’s called the “Diamond City.” I think its because it’s laid out in that shape, but when I told my friend that she was like, “Oh right, because its multi-faceted and cloudy in the middle.” It’s impossible to see what’s going on in any definitive way. You look one way and you think you have an understanding, you look another way and you see something totally different.
RP How did you orient yourself?
MG Initially I was just interested in the place my dad’s from, and this shifted completely. I was just going to go there and check out his old neighborhood, maybe meet some of my aunts and uncles. When I tried to go to my dad’s old street I discovered they put a motorway through his old neighborhood. Initially, as an outsider, I got a certain allowance for ham-fistedly asking about the conflict, and I discovered that identity is really coded. If you say “H,” it means you’re Protestant; if you say “H-atch,” it means you’re Catholic. These tiny little differences are totally imperceptible to outsiders. Even people from the Republic don’t know their way around all the nuances. Identity politics takes on a whole new meaning there...
RP How does queer identity fit into the mix, in the city and in the film, with the gender-bending aspects of your narration of your dad’s story?
MG Yeah, the reason I played my dad wasn’t necessarily to talk about queer identity. It was a way to embody and understand my dad better, you know? I picked a trans woman for his girlfriend because I wanted a similar gender thing to be happening with that character, but I wanted it to be earnest. I didn’t want it to be drag. I wanted it to be as earnest as my attempt to embody my dad, which I didn’t think of as drag but as a way of connecting. Also, I suppose I was trying to project my experience, identity, and community onto my father and his generation.
RP What was your dad’s political affiliation?
MG My dad was involved with the People’s Democracy, an idealistic, socialist advocacy group that wanted to unite the Protestant and Catholic working class against an imperialist-capitalist overlord, basically. They were advocating for housing rights, more housing and jobs for everybody, against what they identified as the ruling class’s divide-and-conquer strategy, which pitted these two working class sects against each other. It was in the late ’60s, so it was in conversation with other youth movements across the world. They modeled a lot of their movement on the American civil rights movement, and some of their early protests have been sort of identified as the start of the Troubles, even though they were largely peaceful. The IRA came later, and was a different thing entirely. My dad was a Protestant Socialist, and after things got violent and increasingly sectarian, I think it became difficult for them to stay in Northern Ireland and most of them left, or were killed, from what I understand.
RP Can you tell me about the original footage?
MG The news footage was totally illegible to me as an outsider initially. It’s a bunch of old ladies and priests talking about what church my dad and his girlfriend should get married in. And I was like, this is so boring. This is the thing that fucked my dad’s life up and made him flee the country? I was expecting balaclavas and bombs and all the other stuff you see in representations of Belfast from that era. I’ve watched it a million times since then, reenacted it, tried to understand it by being there in the tensest part of the year, which is in the summer. I talked to locals about it. There was this one guy I met at a bar; he was probably twenty-five. He asked what I was doing there, and I told him that my dad went on the news in the ’70s and that he was a Protestant dating a Catholic, and he covered his mouth and was like, “Oh my god! That’s like a death wish.” Everyone from there who has seen the footage or heard what my dad did, is like, “That is so insane! That’s like bull’s eye in the middle of your forehead,” for that time. Now it’s mostly normal. Whereas, to me, watching it was so boring. It was cool to see my dad’s weird haircut, which I now have, and what he was wearing and looked like in the ’70s, but I didn’t understand the content as at all dangerous or radical. But I guess it was. It’s kind of an interesting time to be there doing this. Because of gay marriage.
RP Were you in Ireland when it passed there?
MG It passed in the Republic, but not in Northern Ireland. Marriage as a political act in the ’70s was between Catholics and Protestants, and now gay marriage is the new political marriage. I was there during “marching season,” which sounds festive but is politically motivated a lot of the time. The parades usually erupt into violence, so they’re heavily policed. I found it to be really scary, but all my friends there were like, “Oh this is like the tamest one we’ve ever had.” And I was like: What was I thinking. I could just show up to a riot in Belfast with a video camera and be okay? I was there at Pride and there was no police presence at that march. Everyone was just having fun. It was really cute, all these teenagers were running around painting rainbows on each other’s faces, and I overheard this, like, fifteen-year-old girl who looked totally straight scream, “I LOVE GAY PRIDE SO MUCH!” I think they were so pumped because most of the big public parades could get violent at any minute, and there was like zero potential for that during Pride. At the height of the Troubles, gay clubs were actually some of the only non-sectarian gathering spaces where Catholics and Protestants socially mingled without having to talk about it. Gay clubs and punk clubs—in the ’90s, it was raves. I guess middle-class areas have always been pretty neutral, and they still are today: art spaces and the university.
RP I can totally see that, especially the punk clubs being anti-authoritarian; it doesn’t really matter if you're Catholic or Protestant because you don’t really want to participate in either institution. Gay clubs are safe spaces because you’re already an outsider.
MG I’ve come to understand Northern Ireland as a post-colonial state.
RP And we don’t think of it's a colony because they are white?
MG But the relationship of Ireland to Britain… I mean I was reading Wretched of the Earth (Frantz Fanon, 1961)... Oh my god, I sound like an Irish Republican, because a bunch of the IRA prisoners were reading Frantz Fanon and postcolonial theory, and trying to have this revolution where they were overthrowing a colonial power. So even me making this association is politically contentious. But right after I got back I read the Ta-Nehesi Coates book Between the World and Me, and his descriptions of the boys on the block and the violence of summer reminded me so much of what I’d just seen in Belfast. And like, violence being mapped onto disenfranchised bodies. Also, there’s this line where he’s talking about searching through black radical history and expecting to find some answers, but instead only finding more warring factions, which is basically what happens every time I look for an answer there. Of course, I’m wary of drawing this comparison—I don’t want to sound like one of those, “The Irish were treated worse than the slaves” people, but I dunno, it was really striking in terms of talking about colonialism and its physical and psychological effects.
RP Those are some similarities. What differences do you see between the discourse and actions here and there?
MG The level of political discourse on the left is so much more intense than it is here. It’s amazing. Like there was this gay marriage rally in Belfast, and the Socialist Worker’s Party showed up. There were twenty different parties and they all had to give a one-minute speech, and all their speeches were perfectly crafted, rousing and sharp but also funny and cut to the heart of the matter. It was so much more refreshing than politics in the States. Especially coming back for election season.
RP It sounds hard to measure the reality and the perception of the threat there. You spoke about the Troubles alternating between performance and reality. Can you elaborate on that?
MG The major tourist industry of Belfast is Titanic and Troubles tours. Well, now they have Game of Thrones too. But the Troubles tours are like, “This is what a rubber bullet looks like,” and, “Here are all the political murals, and the prison.” It’s so heavy. But it’s also a performance and a way to make money. It’s what tourists are curious about, and it’s also what news cameras are expecting. Like I went to this riot on the 13th of July this year, at this spot where there’s usually clashes, and before the crowd had even assembled there were tons of news cameras just waiting for the action. And then all these dudes in tracksuits showed up and had a riot. But it was expected. It’s hard to know what actually is going on there. That was one thing I was interested in for the film: the way identity is constructed and history is performed, passed down, and reenacted—what’s real, what’s not. One of my friends said, “Oh there’s always a wee riot somewhere,” which I thought was cute.
RP It also seems like identity has becomes a brand to market the city in the tourism industry.
MG It’s weird. It’s there, but not there. The city functions like a normal city, but there’s this weird thing under the surface: its history. One thing I was thinking about was time travel and ancestral trauma, and how that manifests through the body and in society but in a more metaphysical way. I feel like we are time traveling all the time there. One minute it’s 2015, another it’s 1960. If you look at the way my dad was raised, it’s like industrial revolution conditions. The time spectrum is compressed, and almost psychedelic. I’m still trying to get my head around it, and actually, I think it’s kind of a fool’s errand. What happens thirty years after a revolution in a first-world country? It’s the only place in the West where all the revolutionary impulses from the ’60s actually manifested into a full-scale war.
RP Is filmmaking a way for you to process and integrate these questions? Like the process of watching this footage over and over again, the repetition of that?
MG Definitely. I’m pretty sure that nothing is going to happen at the end of this movie. There’s not going to be this big reveal. It’s more just a process of trying to understand this place that I’m from but not from, where my dad’s from. But he hasn’t been in forever. To him, it’s still 1971 there. I don’t think he’s that psyched to hear about it, and I don’t think he wants to go back. I feel weirdly connected to Belfast in a way that was initially shocking. I thought I was going to go for two weeks, but I was there for four months. I went really naive and thought I’d go to my dad’s old house, but it's like quicksand—too much to think about.
RP How do you begin to represent a place that’s been represented so many times before?
MG It’s actually a big challenge. That conflict and that place has been represented superficially so many times, mostly by Americans. It’s been represented as Catholics versus Protestant, and the IRA versus the British. But it’s really so much more complicated than that. There’s like five paramilitary organizations on each side, a million political agendas on each side, and all of it is informed by class. It’s reductive to say Catholic versus Protestant, though it’s easier to describe the conflict in those terms.
RP It’s like full-spectrum polarity, going back to the diamond metaphor, it seems like all the fractionated possibilities of one side clearly demarcated from the other, which is just as fractured.
MG Have you read “On the Absolute, the Sublime and the Ecstatic Truth”? It’s Werner Herzog’s manifesto published by The New Yorker. He writes that sometimes a fictional truth is more true.
RP That’s a Picasso-ism too. He said, “Art is the lie that helps us see the truth.”
MG I’m pretty attached to that idea when I’m making things.
RP Does this documentary-experimental-narrative mode allow you to get closer to something like truth?
MG I don’t think I’m going to get closer to the heart of what I’m drawn to by pointing a camera at it. If anything, doing that creates more distance between me and the thing I’m drawn to. If you’re trying to get to know someone, then stick a camera in their face in the middle of the conversation, that’s bound to interrupt and change the dynamic. It gets awkward. I’m interested in the challenge representation brings to a relationship. Of course my desire as a human being and as an image-maker is to get closer to some version of what I perceive to be truth, or connection, or even love. But rationally I know that introducing the power dynamics that come with representation sort of irrevocably shifts the whole endeavor. So I guess that’s where a lot of the tension comes into my work, and really failure is a big part of it. Like, you can’t reproduce a real relationship on screen. You just can’t. So trying yields all these artifacts of failure and of time, and I basically just stitch those together and call it a movie. In terms of this project with my dad—the presence of the camera and even just the idea that I am making a film about him has colored and framed all of our interactions in a way that feels potentially threatening. But it’s also the reason I was able to go just hang out with him 8,000 miles away from home for four months this year.
RP For every show or project I’ve made where I thought about something for some long amount of time, something that I didn’t know I was looking for would reveal itself at the end. I spent all of this time making a show or writing about X, and then the result would be Y—something I pulled out of my subconscious staring at me, which was only maybe visible to me. That kind of thing?
MG Yeah, that kind of thing. All my films are personal explorations of one kind of or another. In this case it’s pretty obvious what that personal motivator is to get to know my dad better and to connect with him, which I have done. That’s one of the things that makes the stakes really high. I have a relationship with my dad now, which is not something that I want to risk. But the subjects of my other films are strangers, so the risk is lower. In representing someone else, all of my films are actually representations of myself. And I try to make that clear in the making of them.
RP That was going to be my next question: Are all your films ultimately autobiographical? Can you, or anyone, actually make anything else but autobiography?
MG I don’t think that it is possible. It’s always ultimately a reflection of the maker. The last film I made, Full Burn, well... Actually that one also relates back to my own experience. Usually I insert myself into the film in some way and use the strategy of impersonation, or bad acting, to get closer to the subject. But it felt so inappropriate in that case; the film was about soldiers with PTSD. It felt gross to reassert myself into that project. The way I wound up being in it was that one of the soldiers practiced Rolfing, which is the type of bodywork that realigns your body. I came up with the idea when I met another guy who had been a soldier in Iraq and watched him get set on fire for a stunt. I was like, “That is so intense. You’ve been through all this stuff and now you are reenacting it in a more controlled way.” There’s that phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I had an accident in my twenties, and my reaction was what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and more afraid of hurting yourself, so that’s partially why I was interested in looking at these guys—because we had opposite impulses. Theirs was to keep reenacting it in some kind of controlled loop, and I wanted to find out why.
RP I asked that question about filmmaking and repetition, understanding it as a way to integrate a traumatic situation. I keep having similar conversations about repetition and re-performance, and I keep repeating myself, so it may be me or a moment for re-performance. But what I keep repeating about traumatic replay applies to filmmaking: creating a safe space to complete a cycle with awareness. And then usually I talk about co-dependency, where you replay a cycle without awareness.
MG It’s a time for reflection actually. There is a lot of looking backward, maybe it’s a little too scary to look forward right now. A lot of the things that I’m working out in my films are by projecting things onto other people.
RP Projecting, you mean in a psychoanalytical sense… as well as cinematic?
MG Yes! In the Freudian sense, I am projecting things onto my subjects. All of my films start with an attachment to something that makes me decide I want to make a film. If I have this strong feeling that I keep returning to, then I guess I’ll make a movie about it. For me, there is reenactment and there is trying to understand my own relationship to the subject better. When I started I making films about my dad, about Peter Berlin, about Catalina de Erauso, my ideas were probably rooted more in fantasy. With my dad, he was a mythological figure basically. I met him a couple of times, but I had never spent much time with him. Now we have a solid, real relationship—which is the best gift for making a film.
Mariah Garnett’s exhibition Other & Father opens at ltd los angeles March 6 and runs until April 16, 2016. A related film screening of works by Jesse Jones and Seamus Harahan will screen at the Los Angeles Film Forum on March 6, 2016.
Risa Puleo is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. Her writing has recently appeared in Art in America, ART PAPERS, Art 21, and Modern Painters.