Mariah Garnett didn’t know her father until the age of 27. A young Northern Irishman who found himself caught between the warring Catholics and Protestants of late 20th-century Belfast, her dad David absconded to Vienna, where he made no attempt to reconnect with neither the daughter he’d never known, nor the family he’d left behind. Determined to learn more about the man who made her and the conflict which made him, Mariah decides to make a documentary about his experiences.
The only problem is that David hasn’t been informed – and he’s not fully on board. This unforeseen complication seems to knock his daughter slightly for six and forces her to drastically reimagine the shape that her film will take, including literally stepping into her father’s shoes to recreate scenes from an old newsreel and inhabit his psyche as she tours around a Belfast that hasn’t fully recovered from its scars. Clearly, neither has David.
What follows, then, is a ragged and raw depiction of a city that, in parts, remains divided to this very day, despite peace deals and historic accords. Garnett’s filmmaking style is fast and loose, which at times comes off as playful and charming, but at others seems merely messy. The fact that David is not as willing a participant as she’d anticipated means the final product would likely have been vastly different from what she’d hoped, and though Garnett’s innovative casting of herself as her father is intriguing, the film still feels somewhat directionless and disorganised. Maybe that’s the point.
What Garnett does do well is to capture snapshots of human life; brief encounters with local people veer between jocularity and naked aggression, and the dangers inherent in a society that hasn’t been war-torn for decades but wears constant reminders of its past are continually hinted at. On the other hand, she’s careful to balance these out with short vignettes of humour and humanity, whether it be the local children playing the fool in front of the cameras or the quaint signs and ornaments which adorn the Belfast streets. Her decision to use subtitling instead of a voiceover for her narrative is also well judged, since an American accent could have served to undermine or misappropriate a visceral history which is not hers.
These qualities are enough to make Trouble an interesting and engaging watch, but it’s a pity that the overall story arc isn’t more… well, overarching. Is this a film about Mariah’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her father? A movie concerning his flight from Belfast to safer climes? Or a general dive into the fractured history of Northern Ireland itself? In the end, it feels like only the lightest sketch of any of those themes, with the absence of a unifying thread or edifying tone conspicuous throughout.
A feature-length debut which shows promise, then, but one which could have been significantly improved upon if a little more forethought had gone into its structure prior to filming and a little more cohesion had been brought to its presentation after the fact.
Screening as part of Document Film Festival 2021