Due North
By Naomi Keenan O’Shea

NYFF 2019:
Dir. Mariah Garnett, Ireland, no distributor

In 1971, filmmaker Mariah Garnett’s father, David, was the subject of a BBC documentary on interfaith relationships in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At 19, David was one of Belfast’s many unemployed youths, a Protestant, and a committed member of the radical socialist, non-sectarian political organization The People’s Democracy. Together with his Catholic girlfriend, Maura, he agreed to participate in the BBC documentary under the illusion that it would never be screened in Ulster. After the documentary aired on television, David was recognized on the bus by a stranger and his family ties soon began to disintegrate. Poised precariously between the violently divided Protestant and Catholic communities, David fled the North that same year and never returned.

Decades on, Garnett travels to Vienna to meet with her estranged father, the central subject and starting point of her documentary Trouble. In David’s small kitchen, the two move delicately around each other, making coffee and sandwiches and unclogging the sudsy sink. They appear tentative and respectful of one another, though their behavior feels poised with reservation in response to the camera’s watchful gaze. Garnett expresses her unspoken thoughts through on-screen text, elucidating the gaps in communication between herself and David. In this way, the text serves as an alternate means of expression, nodding to the cumulative, communicative silence that has marked Garnett’s relationship with her father.

Garnett is careful to draw upon their shared life experiences, probing gently at David’s memories to pull out parts of his undocumented past that in turn speak to her own unknown history. Together the two of them look at photographs of David’s family on his computer, which were sent to him by an estranged brother he reconnected with online. David, like Garnett, was raised without a birth parent—his mother died in childbirth, and he was brought up by another family, believing his birth father was his uncle. Echoes of loss ripple quietly through these scenes as David looks at images of his mother for the first time, a silent, posthumous meeting that coincides his first real encounter with his own daughter.

So begins Garnett’s moving excavation into David’s personal history, bringing her back to his homeland of Belfast to confront a city still fractured by conflict. Garnett cuts her hair in the style of David’s seventies-era mullet to take on the role of her 19-year-old father for the remainder of the documentary. She channels David’s present-day accounts of his life in Belfast through verbatim, lip-synced reenactments and casts a transgender actress to play the role of his then-girlfriend Maura. Garnett later interviews the actress, Robyn, alongside her partner, Lloyd, who are also in an interfaith relationship, and Robyn speaks candidly of her own father’s traumatic upbringing in conflict-ridden Belfast. Garnett stitches together a patchwork of disparate experiences across the gulfs of generation and identity, finding a deeply human commonality amongst people’s various attempts at resistance and self-preservation.

Amidst the palpable dislocation of Belfast’s fractured cityscape and communities, Garnett searches for common ground within the particularities of people’s lives, probing the foundations upon which allegiances to family, state, and gender identities are structured and upended. One resounding question breaks through each of the film’s fleeting scenes: What happens to people when their lives are partitioned? In this sense, Belfast serves as the most remarkable of places for Garnett to find herself searching for her estranged parent’s past. Legacies of separation, communicative disintegration, and a mismanaged historical record pervade the Northern Irish landscape, finding artistic iteration in Garnett’s singular film style. Enmeshing archival footage and photographs with staged reenactments from David’s life, contemporary talking head interviews with members of The People’s Democracy, and present-day cinéma vérité footage from the streets of Belfast, Trouble is a deeply self-reflexive interrogation of memory and the documentary process itself, always nodding wryly to their inherent constructedness and performativity.

Garnett’s outsider presence draws warm attention from strangers on the streets of Belfast—twice she is offered beer from people standing in their front yards, who perform humorously for the camera. At a bonfire marking the contentious 12th of July celebrations, Garnett watches as a man gathers young children around to play a game of ‘throw a penny’ against the monstrous backdrop of thousands of wooden slats waiting to be set alight. He remarks on her Los Angeles accent and tells her he has just returned from a holiday in Florida with his family. Garnett’s presence incites an intriguing openness in her different subjects and points continuously to the tragedy of sectarianism’s lasting hold upon a society whose humanity is never difficult to find. Garnett’s present-day experience of Belfast’s peculiar atmosphere reflects David’s own memories of his childhood experiences there. He recounts the poverty of his upbringing in the fifties and how his adopted mother would give bread and clothes to the Catholic families in their adjacent neighborhood, despite his own family’s destitution and the inviolable fault lines of sectarianism. As a stranger to Belfast, Garnett is able to wander across the city’s bifurcated borders, touching briefly on each of its hearts where both horror and humanity sit side by side.

Trouble has emerged at a particularly critical point for Northern Ireland, where violent sectarian tensions have been reinvigorated with the uncertainty spawned by Brexit. What Garnett’s film contributes is an acceptance of profound complexity in the face of belligerent binaries, offering testimony to the fact that binaries of any kind result in the destitution of ideas and of the means of thinking beyond the fixity of our largely unchosen circumstances. Garnett’s capacity to index the multiplicity of humanity and history, both personal and political, generates its own form of resistance and offers space for people to reimagine their prescribed identities. Within this, Garnett has drawn a deeply empathetic, resolutely unsentimental portrait of her father, a gesture that, in its quiet generosity and care, feels practically parental.