The Marina Experiment: reclaiming images of child abuse

Marina Lutz turned the lens in on her voyeur photographer father, but what did it achieve?

In 1996 Marina Lutz, a reformed heroin user, was tasked with cleaning out her dead parents' garage. She stumbled upon a vast archive of photographs, thousands of images taken by her photographer father Abbot Lutz which chronicled the first 16 years of her life. Some were sexually suggestive, while others hinted at an unsavoury obsession with his child. Lutz spent the following ten years sifting through the archive to compile a short film called The Marina Experiment "chronicling his view of me through my own digital video microphone," she told the Observer last weekend.

The 18-minute film has won nine awards worldwide -- everything from best documentary to best taboo film -- but it has divided opinion. Some see The Marina Experiment as compelling insight into her long-suffered abuse, others as a perversion of her father's art -- that in reversing the lens, Lutz portrays only the most controversial of images and without their context. But surely that there are so many photos is protest to Lutz's suffering.
Brutally cut, she lays bare the secrets of her abuse, denouncing her father through her own mortification. There are pictures of Lutz as child in her pants, on the toilet, and one where she's innocently touching her genitals.

The images are vulnerable, uncomfortably raw and captivating. By contrast, Lutz's edit and voiceover is brash, bordering on crude. The trailer for The Marina Experiment II -- the second installment of her film -- opens with Hollywood action movie music. "When it came to leaving behind 16 years of evidence you picked the wrong gal," Lutz intones, as though she's moments from unveiling a lethal dose of retribution -- which, of course, is her intention.

She lists a string of charges for which she believes her father is guilty: from "routine spanking" to "latent paedophilia". Lutz narrates the images with a quiet, restrained fury that makes her voice seem lethargic: Marina in the bathroom, in a bikini by the pool -- her bottom jiggling and played on a loop as she prepares to leap off a diving board. There were 10,000 photos to choose from, buried in the "rats' nest" of her parents' garage. So why does Lutz pick only a handful and show them over and over? Does she revisit the worst of her ordeal out of catharsis? Or is she trying to make the most of the archive's suggestive nature, pulling together those stray shots, captured in the indiscriminate flutter of the lens?

Lutz told the Observer she wanted to evoke the sensation of returning to the pain she felt when she began to sift through the vast archive. "I used the repetition because that's how it felt going through the archive. I kept finding the same thing and it kept hurting and hurting me. It felt right." It's a disturbing collection. It's not the images' content that build a case against a predatory father, it's the sheer number of them, sexually suggestive or otherwise. It's "the way you feel when someone's standing too close to you" as Lutz puts it: Abbot invading her space, her privacy and chalking his own daughter up to an art installation.

Lutz has been applauded for her debut film making efforts, and yet I wonder if it's enough. The work of art might be held together by her words and edit but the evidence is of his making and it comes highly acclaimed. We're not enthralled by the music or the PowerPoint fonts: it's the awful voyeurism, the concept that someone might have violated his daughter's privacy so fervently. Is it her father's cruel ambition realised?

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times