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?

ANTONIO OLMOS / EYEVINE
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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad