Family Viewing: Recycling Home Movies Into Wrenching Autobiography


Audiences sampling the emotion-drenched autobiography Tarnation will spend an hour and a half with one tragic family’s tale of mental illness and abuse. But for Jonathan Caouette, the film’s 32-year-old director, the story does not end when the theater lights go up.

Interviewed mere hours after he returned from another trip home to Texas, still inextricably engaged with his family’s struggles, Caouette explained the odd yet ultimately fulfilling process of transforming the media artifacts of one’s own life into a hot topic on the film-fest circuit. “I have definitely found it very challenging to separate my absolute emotional and personal involvement with everything this film encompasses, along with still trying to justify myself as a filmmaker,” he says.

Creating the film, Caouette explains, “was very therapeutic.” Originally an iMovie project completed for last year’s experimental Mix Festival, Tarnation made a dark-horse splash at Sundance, picking up producers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell along the way. His film’s indie-world apotheosis surprised the director, who had never shown his work publicly before. Until Mix, he recalls, “my biggest goal had been maybe a night at Anthology, or at least being shown in some bar in Williamsburg.”

Judging from the enthusiastic reactions, Caouette’s desktop-brewed collage demonstrates that formal experimentation can still connect in a deeply direct manner. “It’s a way for people to think that they’re not alone, as clichéd as that sounds. Subjects like mental illness—and sympathy for the mentally ill—are candy-coated and brushed under the carpeting. A lot of people have a lot of shit in their lives, and this is a film I think people can really relate to.”