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The Marina Experiment: An Interview with filmmaker Marina Lutz about her short film

The Marina Experiment poster

Poster for The Marina Experiment

Filmmaker Marina Lutz has produced a controversial and overwhelmingly powerful film called The Marina Experiment, which has gained awards and accolades as it has been shown across film festivals in Australia, USA and Europe.

Culled and compiled intensely by Marina from a huge archive of photos, Super-8 film and audio recordings that her father amassed of her from her birth to the time she left home. The Marina Experiment documents his perverse, objectifying, controlling and abusive footage into an omnipotent and revengeful short film, turning her fathers lens and gaze back on himself.

He becomes the confuser and the abuser. This short film deals with child abuse, cruelty, surveillance, control, revenge and human rights. The Marina Experiment is gaining awards and accolades from all over the world.

Dug Degnin and I interviewed Marina Lutz in 2010 and tried to find out more about the making of The Marina Experiment , Marina’s experiences and what she has planned for the future. Marina spoke openly and honestly about her experiences and The Marina Experiment.

Dug: When I first watched The Marina Experiment on the Brink I found it harrowing, but I’ve seen it five times or so now and it’s a great piece of work. An amazing film.

Thank you very much

Paul: Similarly when I first watched it about 18 months ago it brought tears to my eyes. I watched it a few times back then and then recently came back to it and have watched it a lot. Is the edit slightly different now?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. The only thing I would have changed was I had a couple of sections of the audio tweaked. They were very old tapes and there were certain areas when I digitised them that were still bad quality. I needed my father to be very clear in these certain areas so I just had those slightly tweaked. I don’t remember the edit being different.

Paul: It must have been just me. Could we just establish some sense of chronological order regarding the making of the film. Am I right in saying this recording, archiving and abusive objectifying your father carried out for sixteen years or so?

Yes, from the day I was born to the day I left home.

Dug: Did you know about the films and this archive of observation material or was it a surprise to you? Did you just open this door and see all of this stuff?

Well, here’s the thing and I know this sounds kind of odd, obviously you would think I would know that it existed because I was there. I could see that my father was filming me or whatever he was doing, but I really had no recollection of it until I went to clear out the storage room and found the boxes.

Dug: How did that feel?

What’s happened now is my only memories are of the archive. I’ve been looking at it for so long. My therapist tells me that it is very common when people have been abused in any way for them to block out anything like a memory that could bring back something unpleasant.

Paul: So you discovered these archives, was that after your father had passed away?

Well, it was way after. My father died in 1986 or 87, on Pearl Harbor Day, actually. I found everything in 1997, which was when I had moved back to New York from Los Angeles. When I had moved to LA in 1992 I put everything into storage that I had and left it. So when I came back I wasn’t going to pay for storage and took everything out. That’s when I discovered it all.

Paul: You said you were sixteen when you left home, I wondered if you can tell us how you were as a person then. I guess there may have been an identification with your fathers intrusiveness for you?

I was very not present in my own life. I had so much going on. It was 1977 when I was sixteen and punk rock time. I moved in with a bunch of punks and I was very involved in the punk scene here in New York.

I don’t think I was aware of anything until I was medicated and paying close attention in therapy before I decided I wanted to work on stuff and make changes in my own life.

Paul: What was that punk scene like back then?

Boy, I don’t really know where to begin. The first people that I met were The Cramps. They used to work in a record shop just down the street from my high school, they were so weird looking I wanted to get to know them. So I used to hang out at the record shop. The first issue of Punk Magazine had just come out. I was meeting all these people. I met John Holmstrom (the editor) of Punk Magazine and, I don’t know, it was just fun. It was a place I met all my, uhm, a whole bunch of other losers and rejects that I felt I was comfortable with.

Paul: In what way did you feel comfortable with that burgeoning punk scene?

Because I was going to an all-Catholic girls school my whole life, in a wealthy part of town and I never fit in. My parents weren’t even wealthy. I don’t know how they paid for me to go to that school. So when I discovered the punk scene it was a place where I felt very comfortable. I hung out at CB’s and Max’s and went out every night to see bands.

Paul: So you would have seen The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids?

Yeah, I saw everybody and they all used to play together. On any given night you’d go and it would be Suicide opening for The Ramones, or The Ramones playing with Patti Smith, it was just constant fantastic music and great people. A lot of fun.

Dug: I lived through the same period myself in London, hanging out in Wardour Street, at the Marquee and the 100 Club, places like that. But for me, and I don’t know whether you can relate to this, it gave me, well, I never really fitted in my town, do you know what I mean? It gave me such a sense of freedom and it seemed a very non-judgemental environment, I don’t know if it was the same for you?

Absolutely, yeah, totally and I loved that there was nothing to really separate anybody out; everybody was a bit of a wanderer, didn’t know what they were doing, maybe lost, and it just felt really correct. It was like I had found some other people who were lost like I was. When I went on tour with The Gun Club in 1984 we went to UK and Scotland.

Paul: That must have been great. Wow! Jeffrey Lee Pierce. He’s sadly passed away now. Just going back to The Marina Experiment, you have used the film, photos and audio that your father made of you, turned it around and made a film all about him. It raises issues of objectification, abuse, control and power. That sounds like hard hard work putting that all together, how was that process for you? Was it a cathartic one?

Well, everybody asks that.

Paul: It’s a good question!

And I don’t know. I never really remember any particular point of catharsis, but what’s happened now is that I’ve… it’s like that classic “I took lemons and I made lemonade” kind of story except I didn’t know I was doing that. I wasn’t a filmmaker before, I just started trying to edit and I discovered that editing was a new way of organising information. I spent ten years with this archive, organising it and re-organising it and I didn’t know what to do with it. I just kept filing and un-filing, going through everything, I just became …uuhhmm…

Paul: Obsessional?

Yeah, it was an obsession; I just felt I was going to find some sort of clue or answer, which I didn’t find in the archives.

Paul: You wrote a play, didn’t you?

Yeah, right, what happened is before I did The Marina Experiment, I wrote a play called A Play with Myself and that was accepted into competition into the New York International Fringe Festival. I think it’s an arm of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And that’s when I discovered the editing, because that was the first time I had edited some of the archive to go together with the play. It was really a one-woman show and I did a sort of a stand-up routine in front of a screen that was showing a film. That actually went from birth up to the present, all the way through the punk years and all that.

That was when I really started editing and that was a lot easier as I did it with a lot of humour. It wasn’t as painful as when I sat down to do The Marina Experiment. That’s because that came out of anger.

Paul: Where did you start work on the film?

Well, I had just moved to Melbourne and I was living in musician Mick Harvey’s studio. He and his wife Katy — Katrina Beale — are good friends of mine and they gave me this amazing opportunity to come and live in their studio. That’s where I made my film. I don’t think I would have been able to make that film if I wasn’t in a place where I felt very safe.

I have known them, I don’t know, over 25 years and they have never, ever judged me. They are the kindest most wonderful human beings and they really just let me be me. They were very encouraging. Mick was fantastic, you know, he gave me some music for the film and set up his recording studio for me. I recorded all the narration there. Also I had time. I took a bit of a hiatus so I had five months just to work on this thing.

And once again, I get a little obsessive when I am working on something. I was really focused, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I would edit this little bit and edit another little bit. I kind of think of it like… I heard this David Lynch interview where he was asked, “How do you make your films?” and he said “I write a bunch of scenes on some index cards, then I shuffle them and I’ve got a movie.”

So that’s what I did. Instead of writing it I just put audio and pictures together. I didn’t storyboard or script it; in fact the only script really was the narration. But I sort of just recorded the narration separately and just put things together the way they felt right. It’s just that I sort of lucked out!

Paul: I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that. You put all your energy into the film for five months or so. It’s great to have that unconditional acceptance and love.

Drawing of Marina by Katrina Beale

Drawing of Director Marina Lutz editing her film, © 2007 Katrina Beale

Yeah, they taught me what that is, because I didn’t know what that was. Because I didn’t learn that from my family, but they’re a part of my extended chosen family I guess. So they really taught me what unconditional love is. On my website there is a charcoal drawing of me that Katy did when I was editing. That’s what I use whenever people ask me for a picture of the Director; I usually send them Katy’s drawing.

Paul: It’s a great drawing. It’s really good to see the awards the film has won recently, from the USA, Australia and Europe.

Yeah, thanks. The Levante festival award was in Italy. It was for the screenplay, but what screenplay? I think it was for the narration. Sometimes I think what happens is that they want to acknowledge you, but they don’t know what award to give you. So maybe it’s not entirely correct and that’s fine.

Paul: How does that feel, winning these awards?

Oh, it’s fantastic. The first one was from Super Shorts, which is a London Festival. That first award I won, I was ecstatic. This whole thing has just been incredible, a continuing journey. I hate that word; I never would have expected what has happened. You know the first festival I submitted to it got rejected. I thought it was the end of the world. I felt so awful, I cried, I berated myself, “Why did you even try to submit to anything? You’re pathetic”, a lot of pain and hurt, it was so awful.

Paul: It’s putting yourself and your work out on the line isn’t it? Opening up to the world.

But it obviously turned itself around a lot.

Paul: Yeah, because you found the strength to submit again and again.

Yeah, and now what’s happening is that I stopped submitting a couple of months ago and now the festivals come to me. They request the film. And then they offer to pay for me to come to the festival. It’s amazing. I’m leaving again in a couple of weeks to go back to Paris where I will be speaking at The Sorbonne. And then I’m going to a film festival in Spain. They pay my airfare, my hotel and three meals a day!

Dug: Wow, so they should!

They treat me like a rock star! For, like, an eighteen minute movie. It’s extraordinary. I’m just very happy.

Paul: Absolutely. You look very happy!

Well I got, well, I guess it’s kind of revenge! My father would be mortified if he’d seen what I’ve done with it.

Paul: I was thinking about what I got out of the film, there’s a lot of detail in the narration, the captions and I was thinking about the bullfight scene at the beginning.

Dug: Yeah, that’s a very very strong beginning.

The bullfight I actually attended with my father in 1971 in Portugal. They don’t actually kill the bull there, that’s why it’s just running around injured.

Paul: I thought that shot was something you added in?

No, everything came from my father.

Paul: Dug and I were talking earlier on and we were thinking who is the bull and who is the bullfighter meant to be in this scene?

Right. That’s a very good question.

Paul: There are a lot of themes in The Marina Experiment and we talked about objectification, control, loss of childhood, loss of innocence, cruelty. Image is king in today’s world, the outward sign of your wealth and status. I was thinking also about the amount of CCTV everywhere and surveillance today. You were under surveillance too.

Yeah. We have that in New York, in fact there’s a cable channel that just shows CCTV from locations 24 hours a day.

Paul: I can believe that. We are objects again and we have no control over the images. It made me think of themes you bring up in The Marina Experiment; that we are all watched and objectified nowadays. Your archive footage came from the 60s and 70s, Was the camera and taking photos very popular back then?

Well, my father was always a still life photographer and he was a photographer in the Navy, so that would have been in World War II in the 40s. He had a lot of camera equipment and I think that Kodak put out the first Super-8 camera in 1965/1966, so my father got it the moment it came out. That's where the Super-8 footage starts; I mean most of the footage he took was incredibly boring. That’s why I don’t use a lot of it in the film. We used to travel all over Europe in the summer and, you know it was in all ways very 1960s and my parents would take all this footage. We’d come back and they'd have a cocktail party for their friends. They’d set up a little screen and people had to sit there and watch us, you know, driving through the Alps.

Paul: I had an Uncle that used to do that when we were young. We always used to go away with my cousins and my Mum and Dad, two brothers and he would film everything and we’d get home and then watch it. You’re exactly right. Then there would be another showing for the Grandparents.

Yeah, so there’s a lot of boring stuff like with cats rolling around, but the thing that’s so weird is we'd be driving and because of how the camera worked, you film something, put it down and you pick it up maybe a week later and go and film something else. So what was happening was I’d be watching these movies where we’d be driving through the mountains and then all of a sudden there’s an image of me with the cat, with my breast showing a few minutes and then you know, it goes back to some other scenic thing, so these little bits would just pop up in the middle.

Paul: Shit, abuse roulette.

That’s just weird, it was alarming.

Paul: Yeah, you kinda stopped, Marina, and I didn’t know what to say for a second, other than that’s quite unnerving and hurtful.

Dug: Yeah ,I would have found that quite frightening, that experience of all of a sudden these things popping out at you.

It was just like I didn’t understand what I was seeing or what was going on or why that was. It just felt so uncomfortable, awful and I think initially I wanted, I needed other people to see it to confirm that what I was feeling was right, you know, and I still feel that way about the film.

Dug: Some validation to confirm your feelings?

But it’s doing its job now, confirming that I’m not the only one who sees things that look wrong. So I really needed other peoples eyes to confirm that.

I’ve also gotten a lot of people that are skeptical, that look at me and think “Oh well, as an editor you can take liberties and whatever”, and of course I took liberties as an editor and I tried to make him as awful as I could, but I didn’t make up the material.

Paul: A friend of mine who watched film with me earlier on this week, was leaning that way, not totally skeptical but just peeling back the layers. The role of the editor; where you put the words, the sequences, the audio samples, you know that kind of stuff. It can all be played around with and they were saying, apart from some visually obvious parts, where else exactly is any abuse?

What, of me?

Paul: Yeah, there were a couple of shots that clearly weren’t right.

Well, the thing is that’s interesting is because people hear the word abuse and think that just has to do with beating or rape, physical stuff, but there are other types of abuse which I think are just as awful. One is emotional abuse and the other is neglect which is a very potent and awful form of abuse and I mean all those things you know will effect everyone for the rest of their lives, no matter how much therapy you go through or what you do, it’s part of you.

I hate that I always fall back on my therapy speak or psychological stuff but I’ve been in it so long that's what I know a lot about. My therapist explained to me what a good parent does is they hold up a mirror so the child can see themselves in the mirror and grow into who they are. What my father did was put the mirror in front of my face. So he could see himself in me. So basically he obliterated my personality and my growing by doing that, so that’s a form of abuse.

I don’t know what kind of abuse you’d call it. Obviously some people have seen that because I’ve been at a fair amount of Human Rights festivals as well. Document Seven from Glasgow is the one that’s put my film on at the Wimbledon College Of Art. I was in that festival. So someone from the college had seen my film. and specifically requested they show it as part of the screening, so it’s nice.

Paul: The Marina Experiment to me is very immediate. I can see how it would fit in to a Human Rights theme. It’s a very powerful film. A very powerful piece.

Dug: You know the sequence when you’re in the stocks? I was thinking it would be the sort of fun me and my kids would have. You know I’d say “go and stick your head through there”, and I’ll take a photograph, that’ll be a laugh, but then there’s a piece later when you’re older in the stocks again. Was that like a re-visit to a place where you used to go?

Well, there’s a lot of Amish country around in America where they have these stocks so I’m sure it was a different location but they always wanted to take the same picture. For me, you know, I used it to show that’s how I felt about my whole childhood and life. All they were doing was putting me into some kind of restraint.

Paul: Yes, and on view at the same time.

Dug: A no-escape situation.

That’s right.

Paul: It made me think of when our eldest daughter was born I remember taking lots of photos of her, I was just blown away because there was another human being here that we’d created and your film made me re-think, or re-check what I was trying to do with the photos, what was my intention?

But every parent does that, I think.

Paul: Yeah, but watching the film again reminded me to re-think back to then again and to ask what was the intention I had? Was that image alright to take? And yeah, I’m perfectly happy with them all. As you say, most parents do that.

Yeah, I think they do with the first child anyway, because people I know that were a second- or third-born have like one picture of themselves! Now it’s even worse because it’s so easy with all the digital cameras and video recorders, I mean it’s just endless footage. There’s so much out there. I think when my father was doing it, it was much less common for anyone to have such an enormous collection of material. There is a fine line between having memories and then it just sort of steps over the line.

For me the audio was the most damning. It was the hardest for me to work with and listen to and that’s why the film is only eighteen minutes long. When I sat down to make it I was really gung-ho and thinking perhaps I could make this into a feature and once I started editing and all that, I just got to a certain point when I couldn’t even look at it anymore and I put it away for a year.

Paul: It certainly is heavy. The stuff around the Christmas presents and the “no, no, no” and “let’s do it nicely”. Those audio parts are very haunting.

Still from The Marina Experiment

Still from The Marina Experiment

Yes, just being bullied all the time.

Dug: Yeah the bit where he says “Marina, don't touch the microphone” and there’s something else behind that with that lovely music and little sweet voice in the background. I was thinking, “Whoa, where’s this sending me?” It seemed as though there was a lot of control there.

Absolutely. I was a small child and all you want is your parents love and you don’t know anything else and you end up doing what they want you to do or else they won’t love you.

Paul: I was wondering whether you get to resolve the issue of the bisexuality with your father?

I don’t know the answer to that. But you know some who come to the festivals, they send comments, like the jurors and selection committee, and a couple of those people said why did you dump that on us at the last scene? I guess it was just my cruel joke. I have so many other bits of disparate information that don’t necessarily connect with anything else but they are there and I’m trying to sort of figure it out.

Dug: Can I ask a raw question, Marina? How do you feel about your father now?

I don’t know I feel anything about him now. I actually don’t feel particularly angry anymore, which I think is really good. I don’t really have any feelings about him. I don’t think about him. I mean if I think about anyone, I think about my Mother, but her presence was so minimal. I do miss her. I don’t miss my father. Someone recently asked me “What was your relationship like with your mother?” and I said “not sexual.”

Paul: The Marina Experiment is still running and has more showings coming up in Europe?

Yeah, you can see on the website there’s a lot of things coming up. The one that I’m going to is Play-Doc in Tui-Galicia in Spain. It’s a tiny festival but they’re paying for everything so I thought why not? I’ll meet some interesting people when I go. When I went to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France I met my producer Christophe Arnaud. You know I have a producer in Paris now? I did an interview for Cahiers du Cinema, which is like a famous French magazine. Every time I go to these festivals I meet all kinds of people and other festival programmers and I feel like all of it is an investment in my new future. I don’t know what that new future is but I’m working on another film already. I’m turning The Marina Experiment into a triptych. That’s the plan. Make two more short films that will eventually be able to be shown as a feature, so I’m working on the second one right now.

I’m very excited about that because I’m in such a different place now from The Marina Experiment, so now I feel much more solid now. And there’s so much more material in the archives so I’m just starting to dig into more things and it’ll be a little different, the next film.

Paul: I really look forward to that, I think The Marina Experiment is going to run for quite a bit.

Oh, you think so? The producer and my friends think it’s just beginning, taking its first baby steps.

Dug: Yeah, tip of the iceberg stuff and it’s going to be awesome for other people to watch.

It’s really interesting you know because of all the accolades and everything I certainly get a fair amount of rejection, I’ve been rejected for about thirty American festivals just in the last month.

Paul: It’s a contentious subject matter, which is why I like it so much!

Yeah, and also I think there’s so many things besides that, like, they may like the film but they don’t know how to program it. A short film generally, unless it’s in an all shorts festival, opens for a feature, so unless they have something that’s sort of dealing with a similar topic they don’t know where to put it. But, yeah, the rejection hurts less.

Paul: What else has been happening?

The Documentary Channel wants to license the film in the US. So if that happens, I will have to take the film off my website.

Paul: So what does that mean exactly? Does that go out across all of America?

Yes. The Documentary Channel is a national satellite television network. It’s great that so many people may potentially watch my film! They did an on-camera interview with me as well which will be shown on a part of their website called DocTalks. I started a Facebook page just for the film that will give out news about The Marina Experiment, showings, festivals, and what I am up to.

Paul: Facebook is a good tool for that kind of information marketing. I will have to look to see if the film/interview will be shown online.

There is a UK production company that has offered to distribute the film online, but I can make more money with broadcasts, so I want to try that first. I have some pending possibilities for broadcasting in France and Spain as well.

Paul: Europe too? That’s cool. Your work deserves that. Your work needs to be seen.

But who would have known that anybody would have wanted to watch this creepy little film?

Paul: Abuse survivors at different stages in their recovery, those who support those who have been abused perhaps, and you, Marina. It’s your revenge. It’s been really great talking to you. Many thanks for being so uninhibited and candid about yourself and The Marina Experiment.

Interview conducted over the pond by Paul Hawkins & Dug Degnin via Skype.

The Marina Experiment:

The Marina Experiment - Facebook page

The Marina Experiment now has a producer and distributor in Paris: Christophe Arnaud (christophe dot arnaud at le-standard dot fr).