Marina Lutz’s father recorded every interaction with his daughter for the first 16 years of her life. After his death, Marina made a documentary.
After her father’s death, Marina Lutz found boxes upon boxes filled with thousands of photographs, reels of Super 8 film, and audiotapes—all about her, the remnants of a father obsessed with recording every aspect of his daughter’s life.
From this discovery comes The Marina Experiment, an 18-minute documentary in which Marina Lutz splices and combines footage to create a portrait of her father and his obsession. In the words of Marina, “Now I am chronicling his view of me through my own digital video microscope, and you can watch me watch my father watch me.”
Where does this come from? Our desire, as humans, to record and document what we see, hear, and experience? From the subject of a recent documentary, to the average high-school senior posting prom pictures on Facebook for the world to see, it happens every day.
Facebook is my own mini–Marina Experiment. I have 704 photographs of myself spanning the summer of 2005 to winter 2010. As I click through them, for the first time in my life, I marvel at how young I used to look (and how old I’m getting—I know, weird, for a 23-year-old). I also can’t help but feel incredibly detached from the photographs—because who I was then is not who I am now. It’s like looking at pictures of a stranger. Thoughts and emotions have been either repressed or developed with time, while convictions have wilted, and cynicism mounted.
Nostalgia nonetheless retains a firm grip. Facebook is a reminder of opportunities lost, and a longing to return to a time when I was better friends with X, or was experiencing Y for the first time. The photographs are treasured moments, but in their inability to be replicated, they’re lost.
What purpose does all of this serve? From where, then, comes the urge to record our lives? Is it a fear, in the moment, that this is the best we have—or, even worse, that someday we’ll forget everything that was good?
“The idea of this tape,” Abbot Lutz tells Marina, “is to tell us from beginning to end, everything that happened, not for us to know, but for you to know 10 or 20 years from now.”
All I have are photographs—and so I can only imagine what it must have been like for Marina Lutz to sit before a screen, and watch her life unfold before her eyes, from birth to age 16.
It’s important to address the darker implications of the film, and the questions the film raises about what constitutes abuse in a father-daughter relationship. The film makes some startling accusations: that Marina’s father was sexually attracted to his daughter; that the footage of Marina leaning across a bed, underwear exposed, or, as a 3-year-old, “going potty,” represented incestuous desires.
Abbot Lutz is portrayed as a sick man. In one scene, she repeats an audio clip of her father saying “delightful” as an array of photographs depicting exposed women are shown. Other scenes—for example, a camera fixated on Marina tossing and turning in her sleep—are downright eerie.
My initial reaction was that this portrait unfairly misrepresents the father. Out of years of footage, the more suggestive clips are used over and over. The repetition is ostensibly for emphasis, but it struck me as exaggeration. Coercion and harassment aren’t evident. It’s not clear whether the creepy footage was an unsettling outlier, or the worst of the worst.
Traumatic childhood experiences can result in persecutory delusions in adulthood; in this sense, perhaps Abbot’s own obsession with recording every interaction became Marina’s own in her attempt to prove his incestuous feelings.
“I was cleaning out storage after both my parents had died, and opened up all these boxes,” Marina explains. “I became obsessed with all of the material—filing it by year, and then subdividing it into categories.”
She went onto watch, listen, and categorize every recording, a project that lasted years.
There’s no question that her father’s obsession was traumatic, and he crossed a number of boundaries. This is what deserves further examination: the boundaries between father and daughter, what is safe, and what isn’t. Abuse can exist in many forms, and while Abbott Lutz may not have ever laid a finger on his daughter or been sexually attracted to her, he nonetheless caused some serious damage.
Daughters need to be able to relax, be affectionate, and know that they are safe with certain males. They need to be regarded as people, not sexual objects. When little girls develop modesty and learn that they have a right to privacy, they develop a healthy sense of boundaries. They learn how to say “no,” which will be an essential interpersonal skill as they become more social. Dads can respect their daughters’ boundaries by “shoulder hugs” and not making comments about physical characteristics.
The idea of an ever-present recording device—while not physically abusive—was certainly destructive in its own right. As a child, Marina was powerless to say “no”—or if she did, her requests went unheeded. For Marina, the notion of privacy was incomprehensible—the camera was always there, always watching: cold and detached, a blank canvas for Marina to project presumptions and judgments.
Perhaps that is Marina’s point: while her father didn’t have an incestuous relationship with her, after the damage and harm from years of invasive surveillance, it was as if he had. The lens deprived Marina of developing a proper relationship with her father and destroyed her own development of a healthy sense of boundaries and self.
Psychologist Miriam Chopra argues that “in both sexual abuse and in psychosis, the individual’s sense of self is deeply undermined. In both instances, the person also lacks a sense of having a boundary which delineates I from not-I, self from object.”
Marina acknowledges the feeling that she was not a daughter, but an object, her father’s experiment:
“Because who raises a child and only communicates with them with some sort of device between them? I never had a conversation with my father that didn’t incorporate a microphone, a still camera, or a moving camera.”
What do you think of the film? Is it a fair portrayal? Why do we record, and where does this impulse come from? As fathers, what are some of the struggles in maintaining a healthy, fulfilling relationship with your daughters while respecting boundaries and privacy?