A great deal of ink has been spilled over the developments in documentary filmmaking over the past decade. Based on Trouble, her first feature, Mariah Garnett is keenly aware of that discourse. The movie begins with an excerpt of a BBC documentary, made in the “voice of God” tradition, about her father, a Protestant who fell in love with a Catholic in the midst of the Troubles in Belfast. Trouble wants us to know it is not that kind of documentary. After the clip, we see Garnett prepare for a meeting with her father, David — their first in 25 years — where she tells him about the film she is making. Much of the BBC documentary, it turns out, is false. Among other things, it featured an interview with a woman it purported to be David’s aunt, who was not. In fact, she never met him.
This discovery primes Garnett to take as her subject the impossibility of accessing truthful, unmediated reality. Determined to better understand both her father personally and the political turmoil informing her family history, Garnett goes to her father’s old neighborhood. There she meets people and restages scenes from the BBC film, casting herself as her father.
The gambit pays off on both personal and historical fronts. It helps build understanding between father and daughter in a relationship defined by absence. We see the possibilities and limits of identification and understanding — of particular significance, given the identitarian nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland — and the persistence of religious divide in the region. Garnett observes Protestant celebrations on The Twelfth, whose fervor dissuades her from checking out the Catholic response. If that seems like a missed journalistic opportunity, it’s worth remembering that this film’s creation was instigated by an “informative” news doc. Trouble is a reminder that a documentary is as much about who is behind the camera as who is in front of it, and that succeeding as a work of art is what matters most for a film, even a nonfiction one.